Sunday 25 August 2019

'Straw-boys, May-boys, Mummers and Mischief'

Banteer based historian hoping to breathe new life into ancient customs

Bill Browne

The uniquely Irish phenomenon of the straw-boys, with their elaborate woven straw disguises, were once a regular sight in many rural parts of the country.

Often spotted at weddings, groups of them would gate crash receptions, entertaining the guests with tricks,  music and performances, before demanding a dance with the bride and groom.  While the tradition has, for the most part, been consigned to the history books there is a local variation on it that still survives in some areas of Cork where there would be a 'strawing' party in the home of the newly-weds when they returned from honeymoon.

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, a historian living in Banteer, is hoping to spark a renewed interest in straw boys and other old Irish folk customs through a talk he will deliver later on this month, under the umbrella of National Heritage Week 2019. 

Entitled ' Straw-boys, May-boys, Mummers and Mischief', the free talk will take place on Thursday, August 22 at 7.30pm in the White Country Inn, Banteer.  In addition to looking at how festivals, holidays, weddings and other social occasions were traditionally celebrated in Ireland, Pádraig will also talk about how strong these traditions are today and will ask whether these customs are in danger of dying out.

According to Pádraig, the custom of the straw-boys was not just limited to weddings as they would often make regular appearances at other times of the year to mark different festivals.  "For example each February on Saint Brigid's Day gangs of Biddy-boys used to visit their neighbour's houses carrying an effigy of Saint Brigid made out of straw. This tradition continues in some parts of Kerry and Limerick but the custom seems to have died out in the rest of Ireland," said Pádraig.

"On the first day of May May-boys would visit villages and towns across Ireland dressed in elaborate disguises decorated with flowers and ribbons, playing music to celebrate the first day of summer - but this tradition is now gone completely," he added. 

The strongest one of these traditions to survive in modern Ireland are the Wren Boys, who are still seen in many areas on Saint Stephen's Day. However, as Pádraig pointed out "even that tradition has weakened in recent years."

As well as traditional customs Pádraig also has a keen interest in traditional craft work and has made costumes and masks for different straw-boy groups using natural materials including straw, leaves, wicker and goatskin. 

He argues that in some areas where these straw-boy customs survive the 'straw' aspect of traditional costumes has been lost and replaced by plastic Halloween masks or fancy dress costumes. Pádraig is hoping that his Heritage Week event will help to re-kindle interest in these customs and crafts.  "Since I moved to Banteer several years ago I haven't seen any Wren-boys out on Stephen's Day.

I've asked locals who have told me that it used to be done when they were younger but that they haven't seen anyone doing it in the area for ten years or more," he said.  He pointed out that these fast disappearing traditions were probably thousands of years old. 

"It would be a shame to let them die out. I am hoping that if there is a good attendance at the talk and I can get in contact with some interested musicians maybe we could bring 'The Wren' back to Banteer this December," he said.  For more details call Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc on 086 3148496 or visit for a full list of heritage events.