Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The wren boys

They had to start the rounds early, because by midday, the locals' reserve of holiday cheer would be depleted. If yours was the first roving band of wren boys to come to a house, you'd do well, but if you were the third or fourth, they might not even answer the door, no matter how well you sang. After the novelty wore off, you were just another beggar, and this was a banner day for beggars.

My father, the postman's son, would wear his Sunday best, save for some walking shoes and a bright green scarf around his neck. The latter was his lone concession to an ancient tradition that would have dressed their leader, an older boy with a strong baritone, in straw and blackface and festooned my father with every piece of colored ribbon from their mothers' dressers. In the town, some of the more established wren boys still bothered with the old trappings, often to the detriment of some poor wren. My father's wren boys were more pragmatic. The town was two miles away and saturated with competition, but they owned the countryside. They skipped the hunt, sparing the wrens to take shortcuts across fields and bogs, through hedges and over fences. When they arrived at each farm, my father was the tenor.
The Wren, the Wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.
Although he is little, his family’s great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.
The version my father and his friends sang was in Irish Gaelic and was much less deferential towards the ladies of the houses. They usually answered the door anyway, and listened with expressions of obligation, patient indulgence, and sometimes real enjoyment. A few listened with desperation, and those would often implore the wren boys to stay for an extra song, or two, or three, or perhaps come inside for some tea and cake. They'd do the requests, but the invitations were usually declined, because there was money to be made and the sun was sliding across the low southern sky.

Their Iron Age predecessors may have paraded a dead wren around the countryside as part of a ceremony that imbued its receiving households with a small portion of the wren's supposed powers of divination and foresight. It's probably just as well that that my father and his friends left the wrens alone; as it was, they learned soon enough that a wren boy's windfall was as good as it got in the hills of West Cork.

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