No Wrens Were Harmed in the Making of this Post!

Wran Hunting has featured before in Roaringwater Journal: that’s the way that St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – has been celebrated for generations in ‘Celtic’ parts of western Europe, specifically Ireland and The Isle of Man, but also in Cornwall – where it’s now only a memory – Brittany, Wales and Scotland. ‘The Wran’ is a very strong surviving tradition here, especially on the west side of the country. The Dingle Gaeltacht is the place to go if you want to see all the action (click on the bottom right of the window to turn on the sound):

In our own Ballyedhob community ‘The Wran’ is not forgotten. In fact you can even find a poem written about it in the Duchas folklore records. This was recorded in the 1930s by John Levis, aged 32, who took it down from Jeremiah Driscoll, aged 64 years. Jeremiah had been a Wren Boy in Ballydehob. Here’s the poem:

Come all you ladies and gentlemen,

For tis here we come with our famous wran

With a heart full of cheering for every man

To rise up a booze before the year is gone.

 

Mr O’Leary we came to see,

With our wran so weak and feeble,

The wran is poor and we can’t feed him,

So we hope your honour will relieve him.

 

We’ve hunted our wran three miles and more

We’ve hunted this wran all around Glandore

Through hedges and ditches and fields so green,

And such fine sport was never seen.

 

As we copied our wran again

Which caused our wran-boys for to sing,
She stood erect and wagged her tail,
And swore she’d send our boys to jail.

 

As we went up through Leaca Bhuidhe

We met our wran upon a tree,

Up with a cubit and gave him a fall,

And we’ve brought him here to visit you all.

 

This the wran you may plainly see,

She is well mounted on a holly tree,

With a bunch of ribbons by his side

And the Ballydehob boys to be his guide.

 

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephen’s day he was caught in the furze,

Although he is little, his family is great,

So rise up landlady and fill us a treat.

 

And if you fill it of the best,

We hope in Heaven your soul will rest,

But if you fill it of the small,

It won’t agree with our boys at all.

 

To Mr O’Leary and his wife

We wish them both a happy life,

With their pockets full of money, and their cellars full of beer,
We now wish a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

 

And now, our song is ended, we have no more to say,

We hope you’re not offended for coming here today,

For coming here this morning we think it is not wrong,

So give us our answer and let us all be gone.

By good fortune there’s ‘Mr O’Leary’ above! He’s the landlord of Levis’ Corner House Bar in Ballydehob – which is the subject of Finola’s post today. He’s on the left in the upper picture, looking on at the Wran Workshop which he allowed to take over his pub yesterday. Basically that involved covering the whole place in straw out of which, magically, appeared a whole lot of wonderfully crafted Wran masks. Joe is wearing a fine example in the lower picture.

The afternoon started outside, in Levis’ garden, where we were all given guidance on preparing the straw. We had to strip away the leaves and any heads which had been left behind, and produce bunches suitable to be plaited and then turned into ropes which would form the basis of the  hats or ‘masks’ traditionally worn to disguise the wren hunters.

On the right here you can just catch a glimpse of workshop maestro Sonia Caldwell, inspecting another fine mask. Sonia is determined that Ballydehob will embrace the Wran tradition (vestiges of which have appeared on the streets over the years) and re-energise it in the way that only this West Cork village’s vibrant community knows how. I can just imagine that in a couple of years’ time people will be flocking to see ‘The Wran’ in the same way that they flock to the Jazz Festival and all the other festivals and events that happen annually here.

Finola and I were at the workshop, and there I am with work in progress on the straw mask which we made (upper picture). You’ll notice that I’m wearing ‘tatters’: I’ve had these for years, and I used to don them for our own mumming tradition in Devon which also happened on 26 December (that’s me with the squeezebox mumming in the 1970s! – lower picture). Over there we called St Stephen’s ‘Boxing Day’ because that was when ‘Christmas boxes’ were given to the postman, the milkman and anyone else who provided their services through the year. Interestingly, Kevin Danaher mentions the ‘Wran box’ which was taken around the houses by the wrenners (or Wran Boys) and used to collect money ‘for the Wran’. This illustration of a Wren box from County Galway is from Danaher’s book The Year in Ireland:

The workshop in Levis’ was very well attended, and there is clearly great enthusiasm for reviving this custom. Sonia collected the straw at the annual Thrashing in Ballydehob – which is a traditional harvest celebration. It’s not easy to find the right straw for making the masks nowadays: anything that has been through a combine harvester has been flattened and will not survive the plaiting.

It’s a complex process, but the group coped well in acquiring the new skills under Sonia’s tutelage. You can see for yourself how successful the day had been in the last picture below. The making – every year – has always been part of the tradition where it’s still practised today. Sometimes the straw masks (which are only one part of the ‘disguise’) are destroyed after Stephen’s. In some of the Dingle traditions they are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s Day.

Sonia is holding a further workshop – also at Levis’ Corner Bar – next Thursday 28 November at 7pm. It’s free to attend: please come and join in: you’ll learn more about the history of The Wran, and there’s likely to be some music too! And then on Stephen’s Day itself it’s out into the boreens and byways of Ballydehob to look for a wren . . . Don’t worry – the days are long gone when our (almost) smallest bird would lose its life: it’s a token hunt, the point of which is the disguising, the visiting around the streets, and the celebrations afterwards, which will extend late into the night!

Many thanks to Pól Ó Colmáin for providing this wonderful photograph of the results of the workshop!

Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh!

That means ‘Happy Halloween’ in Irish – more or less. Samhain – pronounced ‘sow-in’, with the emphasis on the sow, literally means ‘summer’s end’, while Oíche Shamhna is ‘the eve of Samhain’ (Shamhna is the genitive form of Samhain). If today (I’m writing this on 31st October) is Samhain’s eve, then  tomorrow – 1st November – should actually be Samhain. And that’s true because, in Ireland, Samhain is also the name of the eleventh month. And, before we move too far on, I should tell you that those difficult words Oíche Shamhna are pronounced ‘Ee-hyeh How-nuh’ and the correct way to say the whole title of this piece is ‘E-hyeh How-nuh Hun-uh Dee-iv’ literally summer’s end evening, happy, to you all – I’ll bet you’re sorry you asked! So, we are on the eve of the eleventh month, and it’s always been a time of great celebration in Irish culture: the time of the year when we begin to sense the darkness creeping in; the trees are losing their leaves, the sun is getting noticeably weaker, and it’s a season of dampness, mists and grey shadows. No wonder, surely, that the imagination turns to arcane, otherworldly – even ghoulish – matters. And no wonder, also, that this time is associated with the spirits of the dead – and the Other Crowd.

Our little community of Ballydehob in West Cork takes Samhain very seriously – of course! So I thought I would give you a short overview, mainly in pictures, as to what you can expect to find in the village on this day. Earlier in the week I gave a talk about folklore, customs and traditions in the Bank House Talks in the Vaults series and – to acknowledge that we were nearly at Samhain – Finola provided barm-brack for everyone.

While preparing the talk, I reflected on this time of the year – and what it had meant to me when I was growing up in England. There – back in the 1950s – we had no concept of Halloween: we didn’t even know the word. For sure, we had a celebration at around this time (the beginning of November), when we lit bonfires and got excited by throwing firecrackers and bangers around. We called it ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ (sometimes Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night). We made ‘guys’ – life-sized effigies – which we carried around the town collecting pennies to buy fireworks with (and we later burnt those ‘guys’ on the bonfires – it all seems a little gruesome now). As I got older, I was told (but didn’t really understand) that it was all about celebrating the fact that a man had been prevented from blowing up the Houses of Parliament in London with gunpowder. This was a fascinating concept to me and I could never understand (and still don’t) why we remembered a man who failed to set out what he intended to do, while the then attractive spectacle (to me) of succeeding in blowing up the Parliament would, surely, have been a much more justified cause for remembrance and celebration . . .

When I moved to the western counties of England I discovered that the Bonfire Night celebrations there were far more elaborate, probably far more ancient, and included blazing tar barrels being pulled through the narrow streets by crowds of young people. These seemed much closer to the outlandish atmosphere of Halloween which we find in Ireland now. Here’s a couple of pics showing the spectacle which happens at dawn every early November in Hatherleigh, Devon, where I lived for many years.

Anyway, I’ll let you have a look at the images which we have taken in Ballydehob this week, and you can see for yourselves what a dynamic, exciting and explosive place we live in! Thank you to the many residents, shop owners and publicans who have joined in and worked so hard to bring this ancient Irish festival to life today.

A very special event this year was the transformation of Bank House – Ballydehob’s former bank and now a centre for community events owned by the village – into a very scary ‘blood bank’, where visitors were invited to sample nasty food and to donate blood via the spine-chilling doctor! It was a unique experience!

The topsy-turvy world is an aspect of folk culture that goes back a long way – and deliberately sets out to upset the norm, making us all feel a little less comfortable. This is Budd’s cafe in Ballydehob today.

Ballydehob Garda Station has a haunted look about it this week! And the display there included a very appetising stew… (Pics above)

Remember that celebrations take place every year at this time around the world. In Mexico, for example, they have a ‘Day of the Dead’ on November 1st:  Día de los Muertos. It is a time to remember the ancestors, and welcome them back to their homes. During Day of the Dead festivities, food is both eaten by living people and given to the spirits of their departed ancestors as ofrendas (offerings), and decorations. In some parts of the country children in costumes roam the streets, knocking on people’s doors for a calaverita, a small gift of candies or money; they also ask passersby for it. The fiesta (which can last for three days) is filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations. All this bears a remarkable similarity to the goings on in Ballydehob – and all over Ireland – today: skeletons and skulls are very much in evidence!

So I’ll leave it up to you to wish all your family, friends and ancestors Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh! next time you are involved in Halloween activities. But remember, also, the ancient origins of this festival, and the fact that very much the same thing – honouring the ancestors and the coming of the dark time of the year – is being enacted all across the world at this time.

Time for Signs

It’s a few months since I took a selection from my ever increasing files of Irish Signs. If you want to see some of the older posts in this series, click here. Otherwise, I’m going to stand back and let the images speak for themselves: there are curiosities and humour: unexpected juxtapositions – and some that might leave you with question marks . . . I hope you will enjoy them all.

Writing on the Walls!

During our travels around Ireland I have been noticing – and recording – some very striking street art, particularly a number of eyecatching murals, such as the one above in Killorglin. If that place-name sounds familiar, it could be because I have mentioned in the past the town’s great event of the year – Puck Fair – which is taking place right now! But – you might say – that’s all about a goat, so why the honeycomb? I’m afraid I can’t answer that, but I can show you that goat, brilliantly painted on a nearby wall:

The month of August is called Lúnasa in Ireland. In past days, because it heralded the harvest – and, hopefully, a good one – it was an important time for festivals and fairs. On my bookshelf is a large volume (707 pages) all about The Festival of Lughnasa – subtitled: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest, written by Máire MacNeill and published in 1962. It’s one of the most comprehensive works on Irish folklore that I have yet come across. I started reading it two years ago, and haven’t finished yet! But I’m beginning to understand the significance of this season.

This one – half hidden in a passageway in Dalkey – reminds me of the works of Banksy, the elusive street artist in Britain, whose images are always political. I’m not sure if there’s a message behind the portrayal, but it was an unexpected find.

There’s a definite message in the one above, however: also in Killorglin. Some of the murals we have seen have been very arresting – impossible to ignore, in fact. These two (below) were seen in Waterford City – you’d think they are probably related to each other, but I can’t find out who made them (edit – I now know they were made by Smugone – see the comments to this post – many thanks, Dave). Waterford is THE place to see street art, during the Waterford Walls Festival between August 22nd and 25th this year. We might get along to that.

Anyone who was interested in my post of last week, illustrating Finola’s special window, might like to see this mosaic mural inspired by the Children of Lir story – it’s in County Antrim.

These murals are real works of art. Other murals are, perhaps, more decorative – with the purpose of brightening up an otherwise blank wall within a streetscape; or the means to get local information across. For me, all are collectible.

There are murals with connections to local lore and custom. The one below in Dingle has references to the curraghs of the Blasket islanders, while further down are aspects of Ireland’s  traditions and culture: mermaid and musicians.

Not forgetting poetry! Last week we saw the anniversary of the death of poet Francis Ledwidge: he died at Ypres in the Great War, on July 31st 1917 at the age of 29. There is a museum dedicated to him in the house where he was born in Slane, Co Meath, and this mural commemorates him:

Finola has written at length on present-day Ireland’s love of colour in towns and countryside. I’m all for it! Why not be vivid and exuberant, especially in a climate which has been noted for its propensity towards grey days (although I must say Irish weather seems to have take a turn for the brighter recently)? Let’s celebrate – get out the paint!

Signs of Spring

A curious advertising sign from a disused bicycle shop. Perhaps the ‘springing’ lion is sufficient to justify the title of today’s post . . . It’s been a good few months since I last sampled my ever-growing collection of Irish signs and curiosities. I cannot say why, but these latest examples – and all the previous ones – amused me or attracted me when I saw them, sufficiently enough to put them on record. The humour of some of them is profoundly Irish – but also universal – whereas the ‘curiosities’ are examples of the love of colour, or just eccentricity. Anyway, that’s quite enough commentary from me: the images will, hopefully, speak for themselves.


I think the ‘Floating walkway’ must be a unique sign – purpose-made just for that one location, on the dunes at Barley Cove, here in West Cork. When the tide is in, walking across can be a seasickness-inducing business: you have been warned!

Michael ‘Tea’ Higgins here – Ireland’s President. Honoured, I’m sure, to be thus celebrated as a part of his nation’s tea-drinking ceremonies.

Partly obliterated signs can be intriguing. With some, the intention is easy to guess – with others, one can only contemplate . . .

I couldn’t resist these pics showing Ireland in its best colours. However, if you want to see a lot more of that, have a look at Finola’s posts here.

I could go on . . . but I don’t want to send you to sleep! That’s quite enough for now – look out for more in the future.

Reviving St Patrick’s Cross!

It’s an archaeologist’s job to dig things up from the past. Today – the Feast of St Patrick – I’m digging up an old custom and suggesting that it’s something we should all revive!

Examples of St Patrick’s crosses survive in glass cases today. These three are from Ireland’s National Museum of Country Life, Castlebar, Co Mayo

I have found much of my information on this subject in Kevin Danaher’s 1972 book The Year in Ireland – A Calendar published by The Mercier Press. Danaher begins his calendar on St Brighid’s Day (his spelling), and naturally discusses the custom of the making of bogha Bríde – the St Brighid’s cross. In this tradition, very much alive today, a cross is made from straw or reed and hung in the house to ensure good luck and protection for the coming year. In future years new crosses are made, but the old ones are never thrown away: if you visit a traditional Irish cottage, you are likely to see a whole lot of Brighid’s crosses pinned over the mantlepiece or among the rafters in various stages of decay.

A traditional Irish cottage, Finola and her St Brighid’s cross. See this post

When Danagher comes to the next important Irish Festival – St Patrick’s Day – he mentions a similar custom involving a St Patrick’s cross or badge, worn on the clothing for the day itself, and then hung in the house to ensure that the saint’s blessing continues through the years. The custom was still within living memory when Danaher wrote, but its practice appears to have died out altogether in the early years of the twentieth century, although surviving examples of these crosses, emblems or badges can be seen in museums today. I am not aware of anyone keeping up this custom so – to celebrate the day that’s in it – I am proposing a revival!

Danaher’s illustrations of St Patrick’s crosses from The Year in Ireland

First, the history: an English traveller in Ireland, Thomas Dinely, wrote in 1681:

The 17th day of March yearly is St Patrick’s, an immoveable feast when the Irish of all stations and conditions wore crosses in their hats, some of pins, some of green ribbon, and the vulgar superstitiously wear shamroges, 3-leaved grass, which they likewise eat (they say) to cause a sweet breath . . .

Dean Swift in his Journal to Stella wrote from London on 17 March 1713:

The Irish folks were disappointed that the Parliament did not meet to-day, because it was St Patrick’s day; and the mall was so full of crosses, that I thought all the world was Irish . . .

Here’s ‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ writing in the Journal of the Cork Historical Society in 1895:

For a week or so preceding the National Festival, the grown members of the family are occupied in making “St Patrick’s Crosses” for the youngsters, boys and girls; because each sex have a radically different “Cross”. The “St Patrick’s Cross” for boys consists of a small sheet of white paper, about three inches square, on which is inscribed a circle which is divided by elliptical lines or radii, and the spaces thus formed are filled in with different hues, thus forming a circle of many coloured compartments. Another form of St Patrick’s Cross is obtained by drawing a still smaller circle, and then six other circles, which have points in the circumference of this circle as their centre, and its centre as their circumferential point, are added; after which one large outer circle encompasses the whole, thus forming a simple and not inartistic attempt at imitating those circle or bosses  of our beautiful Celtic cross pattern. The many spaces, concave, convex or otherwise, thus formed, are then shaded in; each a different hue, and this constitutes the “St Patrick’s Day Cross”, of which our little ones are so proud. In our time, when every school boy is supplied with a pair of compasses and a box of water colours, the making of a St Patrick’s Cross is only the work of a few idle moments . . .

Hmmm… Well, the architect in me is intrigued enough to try out these instructions and – perhaps – add a few embellishments to see what sort of a job can be made of it:

What do you think? I have to admit to using my electronic drawing board rather than the compasses and water colours! ‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ goes on to describe the girl’s cross:

The little girl’s “St Patrick’s Day Cross” – which is made by an elder sister, or if sufficiently skilled, by herself – is formed of two pieces of card-board or strong thick paper, about three inches long, which are placed across at right angles, forming a cross humette. These are wrapped or covered with silk or ribbon of different colours, and a bunch or rosette of green silk in the centre completes the tasteful little girl’s “St Patrick’s Cross”, which is pinned on the bosom or shoulder . . .

Not a little curious is the etiquette of those children’s “St Patrick’s Crosses,” for whereas it would be considered effeminate of a little boy to wear “a girl’s cross”, it would be considered most unbecoming on the part of the little miss to don a boy’s paper cross . . .

‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ continues to enlighten us further on this custom:

I have known two or three old priests in Cloyne diocese break up and distribute among the girls of their respective parishes their old and worn vestments, for the purpose of being made into St Patrick’s crosses. The cross thus made (from a priest’s vestment) was an object of veneration; and I have known many such forwarded by their owners to their kindred in America, where they were doubtless received as welcome souvenirs of an ancient custom in the land of their fathers . . .

My final offering (above) – have I encouraged you all to get busy and help me revive this custom in time for St Patrick’s Day next year? I hope so . . . I’ll finish off with a couple of pics of a custom that’s still as strong as ever: the annual St Patrick’s Day Parade in Ballydehob, West Cork. Of course, the sun shone out!