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!

Stormy Weather

neadwinter

This picture of Nead an Iolair is here to create a seasonal feel: it was taken by our neighbour Dietrich in the Great Winter of 2010 – 2011 when the extremes were all about deep snow, frozen roads and frozen pipes, unusual for this little corner of the island normally kept mild by the Gulf Stream. This winter we have a different extreme – hurricane force winds!

spiked

‘Hurricane’ on the Beaufort scale means wind speeds of 118 km/hour or more. We went to bed on St Stephen’s Day evening, having measured the wind speed outside as 87 km/h. That seemed wild to us: the trees were bent over and the salt laden rain and sleet were coming in horizontally and lashing our south west facing windows. It was hard to sleep: the slates were rattling loudly above us and the aerials and lightning conductors on our roof were shrieking and bending. The noises got louder and more terrifying as the night went on. I wanted to venture outside with my little hand-held anemometer but I couldn’t face it. The violent storm began to abate only in the early hours of the morning and, when we did creep out, it was to find some damage: two trees down in the haggart, sadly, and our beautiful weather vane collapsed. It was as well that we weren’t underneath when the flying Eagle and its sharply pointed arrow came crashing on to the lawn, just missing our door.

levissession

St Stephen’s Day Session, Ballydehob

 

Earlier in the day we had enjoyed an unexpected visit by the Wren Boys to Levis’s pub, where we were involved in an improvised session. Two groups of Wren Boys in fact: the first an adult company with musicians, colourful costumes and bizarre masks, and the second a group of boys dressed in old coats turned inside out, pyjamas and sailor caps, carrying large collecting tins. All were welcomed and the festivities grew merrier as the wind strengthened.

wrenners

wrenboys

Keeping traditions going: outlandish Wrenners visiting Ballydehob – top – and local lads collecting in Levis’s Bar – below

As I lay in bed at the height of the storm I found myself worrying about our birds: how on earth could the Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Robins and Wrens (any Wrens who had escaped the St Stephen’s Day hunt that is) have survived that terrible gale – which stripped the bird feeders of everything moveable and the bushes and shrubs of their sheltering leaves? In the morning, there they were back again, and noisily demanding a refill which, naturally, I was delighted to provide.

message

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’.