Who or what killed the wren? The old winter custom survives in only a few pockets of tradition, why did it die out? Was it indifference, suspicion, emigration, the harsh grinding poverty of rural Ireland or the coming of electricity, the triumph of secular greed over spiritual wealth? Séamus Tansey recalls a time when going out on the Wren was the height of teenage defiance. Come and sit yourself down by the fireside and listen as Séamus Tansey recalls his boyhood in Gorteen Sligo. Take a fearful glance behind you as the phantom shadows of the Wren-boys flicker once again around the kitchen walls.
there was one thing that my mother hated more than my father teaching me the
tin whistle, (with a view to playing the flute) it was that ancient custom of
mid-winter called the Wren Boys. Why she hated them, I'll never know. But she
"One of those mornings in 1948 with the snow on the ground her worst fears were realised as the wren boys came. Ah you could hear them with their whistles and flutes and bodhráns sounding with bells on, the stone walls fallen, the dogs barking as they came across the countryside in the mists of the morning.
"Ten of them in number some of them up to thirty some of them had sticks to keep the dogs at bay, more to collect the money, more of them to dance and others to play the flute or hit the bodhrán, each man had his purpose.
" 'Don't let them' in, my mother said, if we let them the door we'll never get them out.' She was right; my father was out of bed beside the fire sitting in his drawers, a black beret on his head and his rosary beads hanging around his neck. I was running around the floor in my nightshirt, a little tin whistle clutched in my hand, that Santa Claus had brought me the day before. It was the time and the first time I had seen the Wren boys, in this case there were ten or more of them, jackets inside out, shirts outside their pants, with string tied around the bottoms of their pants. They had tack boots and the carried sticks to fend off the dogs, they wore cardboard cylindrical shaped hats, painted blue, green red, all sorts of colours and festooned with streamers hanging from their heads. Also stuck to their hats were feathers of many birds, and the little eagle conquering wren and the eagle himself.
"The wren who lost his life in sacrifice to the rebirth of the sun, and the
eagle who he had done out of his title kings of birds. The wren boy's faces
were black with boot polish or their faces covered with white cloth down to
their nose to hide their identities, eyes peering out of small slits. Two of
them put three quarter flutes to their lips and one played the bodhrán, they
pulled my father up and roared and cheered as he danced in his socks with the
wren boys in their tack boots. They laughed and cheered but for me it was a
different experience that pagan sound, that pagan sound of the bodhrán did something
to my soul as I heard a baptism of flute music that morning.
"They collected their money and they left our house, but I ran after them barefooted in the snow. And my mother ran after me, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and frogmarching me back to the house. Saying into my ear you time has not yet come. Oh how I cursed and sighed and how I wished I could have gone with them, cursed the infirmities of my childhood, which had seemed so happy and so full of freedom, yet little did I know in my childish mind that within a few short months, those wren boys would be swept away on am emigrant ship, never to return to their snow driven miserable God forsaken landscape where they were dragged up and some of them starved, and where they could never get a living.
"They were just acting out the ritual of the rebirth of the sun, one last time before they said goodbye for ever, straining at the leash to experience the bright lights of England of London of Manchester and Birmingham; of America, New York, Detroit and Philadelphia and a new freedom. But for me it was different, and my father saw too the effect it had on me when he brought me that night into Gorteen village. The ancient ritual of beating down the sun, the sacrifice of the wren bird, his blood sacrificed to the re-birth of the sun. Yes this music and the sound of the bodhrán, that pagan sound of the drums on this west of Ireland street, the first sounds of the full sized flute coming in and then that would break off and the three quarter flute would come in as the rhythms would change to that of the jig, here the sound of the Eb tin whistle playing a jig such as the Battering Ram or Tatter Jack Walsh. Four or five gangs of boys, locals, like Roger Sherlock and the Cloontia boys from across the Mayo border, but the sound of bodhráns was the same for all of them, then out of the darkness a D tin whistle cutting through the blackness like a little eagle conquering wren and him singing . The people of Gorteen the holy Joes banging the doors shut in the wren boys faces, afraid of this pagan custom in the streets tonight, They ran in fear to the church and knelt at the crib by the child Jesus, but you could hear the sounds of the bodhráns; following them and the music. Because this was the old custom a celebration of the rebirth of the sun in the sky put together with the celebration of the birth of the sun of God. In truth that combination of pagan and Christian was what I remember about Gorteen.
"The wren boys would file out of the pubs and gather in clusters and talk of where they would go next, to the townlands and the nearby villages the pubs and the places that marked our landscape. They went off in the dark with their bodhrán's with bells on tied to the handle bars of bicycles, off for one last communion with the spirit of the place and race before their self imposed exile.
"Though this project has left me drained, numbed by contribution, I'm glad I stopped running and faced the phantom shadows of childhood. These phantoms and their world I was running away from are now, ironically enough, the material, which despite all the records and broadcasts I have made to date, will possibly be my epitaph and for which I no longer walk the earth but become a phantom shadow myself to haunt some other Connaught fire."
This an is an edited transcript from Seámus Tansey's new three CD recording 'Phantom Shadows of a Connaught Fire Light'. This can be ordered directly from Séamus on +44 28 383 46026. An abridged version of this piece appears in the Christmas 2001 edition of Irish Music Magazine. For those with internet access there is a fascinating link to an account of the Wren Day on the Dingle Peninsula at : http://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/wren.html
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