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!

Irish Immersion!

We traversed the Dingle Peninsula on the way to our week-long ‘Irish Immersion’ course. Our route included the Conor Pass (above) – possibly Ireland’s highest mountain pass with a summit of 456m: not to be missed, as the views from it are spectacular in all directions. Do be careful, though, as it’s included in the list of ‘the World’s most dangerous roads’. That’s because in places it is only a winding single track, with the way almost tunnelled out of steep rock faces: don’t try it in a bus!

Once over the pass, however, it’s plain sailing and sunshine all the way down to Dingle itself, a busy waterside town (which sells the best ice-creams!),  where we stayed while we were on our course. Here’s the view from Coastline House, our very well-appointed B + B:

So why would I want to learn the Irish language? And how easy is it? The answer to the second question is: it’s fiendishly difficult – especially for an ear that’s been attuned to English for a lifetime! But – here I am in my eighth decade, an Irish citizen and a permanent resident of West Cork – so what would be more natural (and good for the ageing brain) than being able to communicate in the native tongue? Finola, of course, learnt Irish right through her schooldays (it’s been compulsory since the founding of the Irish State) and can hold her own in conversation, but she wants to improve her knowledge and took a course at a higher level: I was in the raw beginners’ class, together with our good friends Amanda and Peter Clarke, with whom we enjoyed great craic in our free time.

The western part of the Dingle Peninsula is a Gaeltacht area: that means it is a place where Irish is the dominant language; all street signs, traffic signs etc are in Irish only; anyone in shops, businesses etc is likely to speak in Irish, and there are a number of schools where teaching is all in Irish. Our courses were based in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (in English it would be known as Ballyferriter) – to the west of Dingle town (which is, in Irish, An Daingean). You can tell from many of the photographs in this post how stunningly beautiful the landscape is in this part of Ireland. The upper picture above shows the very fine school building of Coláistí Chorca Dhuibhne, which hosts all the Irish classes. The ones for adults are run by the Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhneyou can find all the details here if you’ve a mind to give it a try yourself.

It’s a different world in the Gaeltacht areas: can you guess what the sign above is saying?

You ought to know, also, that the Gaeltacht area here is known as Corca Dhuibhne, which translates literally as ‘the seed or tribe of Duibhne’ and derives from the clan who anciently lived in this part of County Kerry. Try saying ‘Corca Dhuibhne‘ . . . How did you get on? This is what I should have heard:

Above – streetscapes in the lively village of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter). Note the signage in the upper picture. The lower picture will be self-explanatory to Star Wars fans: the film series is set “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” – Fadó Fadó is the Irish way of beginning a fairy-tale, meaning literally “long long ago….”. And – just to confuse you (and me) – Ar an mBualtín means “in Ballyferriter”! I know – I just told you that the town is Baile an Fheirtéaraigh in Irish, but the townland is known as an mBuiltín, which is in fact another way of describing a “booley” which, you will no doubt remember from my post here, is the place where cattle are taken up to the hill pastures in the summer. So, all things Irish are often not straightforward. Just to explain a connection: parts of the latest Star Wars episodes have been filmed on the promontories above Ballyferriter – a great ‘selling point’ for the local tourism industry!

Green roads lead to the hillside pastures which dominate the Dingle Peninsula

Our course was taxing, and I have the greatest admiration for our múinteoir (teacher), Caitríona Ní Chathail – a wonderful lady of infinite patience, and great enthusiasm for the language which she shared with us throughout the six days. We were allowed some treats – Caitríona took us out on a walk and introduced to us some of the history of the area (kindly, she spoke bilingually); on one evening we were given a talk on archaeology by Isabel Bennet, the very knowledgable curator of the museum in Baile an Fheirtéaraighand on the final evening we combined our various talents to give a concert to all the students, Oíche Airneáin – literally a “night of visiting”, and we each had to introduce ourselves in Irish!

Upper – Caitríona’s history walk around the locality; lower – my contribution to the Oíche Airneáin was some tunes played with Christy Martin on hammered dulcimer. Christy, a fellow student, is a professional travelling musician from California

How do I feel after the course? Exhilarated by the experience of having concentrated for a week on one fundamental aspect of Irish culture, but daunted by the very long path upon which I have embarked – and uncertain as to how to make sure to build on that grounding. One thing that impressed me above all is the obvious passion that the people of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh and Coláistí Chorca Dhuibhne have for their particular Gaeltacht: Caitríona made sure that we realised that the Irish which she taught us is specific to Corca Dhuibhne: each of the Gaeltacht areas has its own dialect, although – whichever version of Irish you learn – you will be understood by speakers from the other areas.

Traditions and stories are abundant in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht: upper picture – the Wren is hunted on the Peninsula at Stephen’s Day (26 December), and I caught a glimpse of some ‘straws’ hanging behind a door: part of the costumes worn by one of four ‘Wran’ groups who keep the tradition alive in Dingle. Lower picture – two of many gullauns (standing stones) dating from ancient times and which remain in the landscape of the Peninsula: the backdrop is Mount Brandon, named after the 5th century saint – Brendan – who discovered America long before Christopher Columbus!

I was pleased to be presented with a certificate by Caitríona at the end of the course! We all had one, and mine will serve as a reminder of the intensive week. Hopefully, it will also serve as an incentive to delve further into the mysteries of Gaeilge. I am already determined to revisit the wonders of Corca Dhuibhne as soon as possible!

Bird Diary

birds group wb

Since we started this blog, back in 2012, I have regularly written posts on the many bird varieties which we have around us on the coast of Roaringwater Bay. There are lots to add! Watch out for more entries in the future which will include some of our new arrivals. In the garden of Nead an Iolair the other day we were surprised by a male Sparrowhawk perched on the wall: the small birds all kept well away! Recently we’ve been visited by Jays, too – someone else the smaller birds shun, as it is partial to stealing eggs and young.

jay

Today I’m going to recap on our feathered companions up here. Remember – if you see something printed in blue on these posts you can click on it and it will link you to a new page on the subject mentioned.

Loons (sketches by Richard Allen)

Loons (sketches by Richard Allen)

Almost a year ago I talked about the Great Northern Diver – or The Loon, as it is called in Canada. It’s only one of the many wading and shore birds which visit the unspoilt coastline in these parts. Watch out for future posts on Oystercatchers (which have already received a brief mention), Curlews, Gulls and Ducks, to name but a few.

Charm of Goldfinches - photo by Maurice Baker

Charm of Goldfinches – photo by Maurice Baker

In November of last year I discussed the Charm of Goldfinches which visited the bird feeders in our garden. We saw nothing of them through the summer – in fact they were absent until this November, when a whole flock suddenly descended upon us in one day: now they are regular attenders again.

Fly-past at Ard Glas!

Fly-past at Ard Glas!

The very first bird post that I put on the blog was Aviation – and this was when we were renting Ard Glas. That was a general review of the birds that came to our luxurious new bird table which Danny made for us – now sadly demolished by Ferdia the Fox who is as fond of peanuts as the birds are…

heron

Since then I have introduced you to Old Nog the Heron – who flies over us quite frequently, made a passing reference to the Swans who live below us in the Cove (but see more below), and set out a whole lot of fact and folklore about the wonderful Barnacle Goose.

Legend of the Barnacle Goose

Legend of the Barnacle Goose

My favourite birds of all here are the Choughs. This is because they had died out in my home county of Cornwall (where they appeared on the coat-of-arms) when I lived there, although a programme to reintroduce them was started a few years ago and I was delighted to see a pair foraging on the coastline there just before I left. Imagine how pleased I was to discover that Choughs are resident all around Nead an Iolair! They perch on our roof, forage on our rocks and generally make themselves known to us through their distinctive cry of Cheeeeough

Choughs over Nead an Iolair

Choughs over Nead an Iolair

The seasonal bird of the moment is the little Wren. On St Stephen’s Day (26 December) this – the King of all the birds – has to take cover, because he is being hunted!

Troglodytes troglodytes

Troglodytes troglodytes

Wren Boys in Cork (Maclise 1843) and drawing by Jack Yeats

Wren Boys in Cork (Maclise 1843) and drawing by Jack Yeats

Amongst many other creatures, Swans are depicted in the Honan Chapel – that gloriously effusive celebration of stained glass and mosaic art.

Honan Chapel Swans

Honan Chapel Swans

They are also well represented in Irish folklore – most prominently in the saga of The Children of Lir. Here the enchanted children are destined to live out one of their fates – 300 years in the cold, inhospitable Sea of Moyle:

stamp-children-of-lir

Wrens and Rhymers

troglodytes…..…In comes I the Wran,

The Wran, the Wran, the king of all birds.

On St Stephen’s Day I was caught in the furze.

Although I am little my family is great,

Rise up landlady and give us a trate.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

Give a few pence to bury the Wran.

Then I’ll dip my wings in a barrel of beer,

And I’ll wish you all a happy New Year.

St Stephen - the stoning

Stoning of St Stephen by Uccello

– St Stephen was the very first Christian martyr: in the same year that Christ was crucified he claimed to have a vision of Jesus in heaven standing at the right hand of God. To Stephen’s enemies this was a blasphemy, and he was forced into hiding. But his hiding place was given away by the song of a little Wren, and St Stephen was publicly stoned to death. In retribution for this the Wren is traditionally hunted in Ireland  (and some other Celtic countries) on St Stephen’s Day – December 26th, and groups of Wrenboys carry the bird from door to door – slung from a pole or interred in a small wooden coffin: there was a time when the poor Wren himself would have been stoned to death. An old story also blames the Wren for alerting a band of Vikings to the approach of the Irish army by pecking on a drum; yet another claims that when Cromwell’s soldiers were asleep and the Irish were about to attack, a flock of Wrens rose into the air and wakened the enemy with the sounds of their wingbeats. So there has always been a strong connection with betrayal.

Wrenboys in Cork - 19thC and Wren Boys by Jack Yeats

Wrenboys in Cork – C19th and The Wren Boys by Jack Yeats

Troglodytidae (cave dweller) is such a small bird: here at Nead an Iolair we occasionally catch sight of him darting out from thick, seemingly impenetrable bushes close to the bird feeder – his movements seem more like a mouse. Small, yet in mythology he’s a giant – King of the Birds in several traditions: Koning Vogel in German, Konije in Dutch, Reytelet in French, Bren in Welsh – all mean King or Little King. When the birds were electing their king they decided that whoever could fly the highest would win the contest; the Eagle easily outflew everyone else but the Wren was hiding in his wings until the Eagle had exhausted himself and then flew on up to claim the title. But there’s more: the Wren is forever associated with that turning point of the year when everything goes topsy turvy: the Twelve Days of Christmas. At this time the Lord of Misrule presides and traditional roles are reversed; it’s not surprising, then, that the tiniest of the birds should become the most important. But, like all kings, his reign is finite – and he is sacrificed at the dark year’s end to ensure that the sun will rise again.

wren song

Which brings us to Rhymers… and Wrenboys, Strawboys, Guisers and Mummers… The Feast of Stephen is their day too. When I was a boy we went out every Boxing Day morning to Crookham in Hampshire to watch King George slaying Bold Slasher, who was miraculously brought back to life by the quack Doctor, after which the young fertility figure Trim Tram Jolly Jack ‘…wife and family on my back…’ killed Old Father Christmas – something which must have seemed odd to a child, who might not have understood the symbolism of the  old, dark winter giving way to the new life of spring. Danny tells me that when he was growing up in Limerick he saw the Strawboys or Rhymers performing the same play on the streets – and he remembers the Wren being paraded in procession, too.

crookham mummers

Mummers in Hampshire, England, above – and Wrenning in Kerry, Carrigaline and Dingle below

wren day

The folk play is alive in Ireland: there are Mummers in Wexford, Cork and Dingle, and the Armagh Rhymers travel across the world to perform their rituals. Here at Nead an Iolair I shall be reciting ‘…In comes I…’ around Christmas time: the words of all the characters are locked firmly in my brain – I have never seen them written down. It’s a true oral tradition – and a surviving one. Who knows – if I don’t repeat those words, the sun might just stop shining… It’s not worth the risk.

The Armagh Rhymers

The Armagh Rhymers

And – on St Stephen’s day – I shall be on the lookout for a Chime of Wrens, but I love all our birds, so it will only be a token ‘hunt’.