St Stephen’s Day and the Wren Boys

Clare, 26 December –

Clare Wren Boys .

The Rev James Grahame, curate of Kilrush (Noted before 1816);

‘Formerly the youth of the whole district combined as wren boys, but now they go in bands of from two to six, and the wren bush is often a mere branch with a few rags and no wren. A structure of  evergreens, in general design like a crux ansate, covered with streamers and with the dead bird hung up or in a sort of cage, was till lately carried around. There is still to be found tolerable dancing and singing, as a break in the weary succession of small begging parties, shuffling and playing stupid bulfoonery.

The verses usually begin with:

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

On Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.”

 

but the next lines are greatly varied:

“Although he is little his family is great,

And (or So) I pray you all ladies (or good Christians) to give him a treat.”

I noted the following haunting lines on St Stephen’s Day in 1909:

“Put your hand in your pocket and take out your purse

And give us some money to bury the wran.”

Equally melodious were lines in vogue some thirty years ago:

“We broke his bones with sticks and stones,

And give us some money to get us some drink.

It was generally believed that St Stephen had hid in a cave, and that his retreat had been betrayed to his enemies by the wren. Mummers are now reappearing, after a long lapse of time, among the wren boys.’

Folklore 22, no 2 1911

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Christmas day, Gifts, Feasting and the Mummers

Fermanagh –

christmas

Lombe Atthil writing about the Christmas of his youth,  in Fermanagh, in the 1830s;

‘Christmas seemed a glorious time, but what my grandchildren would think of the Christmas-boxes with which I was content, I can well imagine, for the nearest shop at which presents could be bought was fourteen miles off, and even then the choice was of the poorest kind. But then there was a splendid plum pudding as big as a small haycock; this would be carried in all aflame. There were mince pies, too, home-made cakes, etc., and for us youngsters a bottle of home-made gooseberry wine.

Party of Mask Mummers-x350-M-1288

Then I have vivid recollections of bands of boys being admitted to the kitchen at Christmas time, dressed up fantastically to the best of their ability, and called “mummers”; and of the excitement of us children, when the servant would, some evening between Christmas and Twelfth Night, enter the drawing-room and utter the almost magic words, “the mummers have come.” Down we would rush to find the kitchen cleared, the servants ranged around the wall, and the table brought to one end for us to stand on.

These mummers were boys farmers’ and labourers’ sons residing in the district, and were of course poorly clad, but decorated with scraps of coloured calico and ribbon sewed on here and there, and I think they wore paper caps of various shapes. They came into the kitchen one by one, each reciting some scrap of doggerel verse, and when the whole band had come in they danced in some fantastic way on the flagged kitchen floor. Then, a little money being given them, they went their way to some farmer’s house, at which they might hope to receive a trifle. One of the rhymes has fixed itself in my memory, probably because it frightened me. A boy about thirteen, farther better got-up than the others, with a frying-pan in his hand, on one occasion entered, strutted into the centre of the floor, and turning to face us, Said,-

“Here come I little devil doubt;

Under my arm I carry a clout;

In my hand a dripping-pan;

Money I want and money I crave,

If you don’t give me money,

I’ll sweep all to grave.”’

Recollections of an Irish doctor, 1907

 

Going About with “The Waits”

Longford-

Ballymahon
Ballymahon

Reverend John Graham, Ballymahon, 1819;

‘For some weeks before Christmas, several musicians, generally pipers, serenade the inhabitants of Ballymahon about an hour or two before daybreak, calling out, in intervals, the hour of the morning, and stating whether it is cold, wet, frosty, or fine. This is called going about with “The waits,” and those who give themselves this trouble, expect to be paid for it in the Christmas holidays, when they go about in the daylight playing a tune, and receiving the expected renumeration at every door.’

William Shaw Mason, A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland iii

Feeding Cattle between Old & New Christmas Day

Wicklow-

nathaniel_hill_bradys_farm (2)
Brady’s Farm – Nathaniel Hill, 1897

William & Mary Ann Hanbridge;

‘It was unlucky to give the stalled cattle food between Old Christmas Day and New Christmas Day, so the mangers in the sheds were made large enough to take the full supply of food for the twelve days. The mangers in some farms are still very large, but the superstition which began with the change in the Calendar* has died out.’

Memories of West Wicklow 1813 – 1939.

* The Georgian Calendar replaced the Julian Calendar in 1752, ten day were taken off the length of the  year.