We’re all off to hunt the wren

Michael Wolsey – As I See It

Audio records and film footage of Ireland’s straw boys and wren boys have been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register where they join, among other items, copies of the Magna Carta, the Book of Kells, the Diary of Anne Frank and the Bayeux Tapestry. Distinguished company you’re keeping there, lads.

They have been donated by the Irish Folklore Commission in an attempt to ensure that these and other gems of our tradition are not lost to the world.

Not before time. These capers, which are always associated with Christmas and St Stephen’s Day, were once common throughout Europe but Ireland has become almost their last outpost and nowadays they are a rarity even here.

Valiant attempts have been made to revive the custom so you may well see wren boys or straw boys, or whatever they care to call themselves, down your local pub on St Stephen’s Day or raising money for charity at a shopping centre or some such venue.

But these are slick and sanitised shows. To see the real thing – with the village lads going door to door – you have to head for some pretty remote parts of the country. And since they do go from house to house, you can’t just turn up at a venue and expect to be entertained. You have to be invited.

The custom still survives in parts of Tyrone, Fermanagh and south Armagh. A few years ago I was luck enough to be there when the mummers, as they call them in that part of Ulster, came to call.

They put on a great show based, very loosely, on some historical event – in this case, the Battle of Clontarf, although I don’t think Brian Boru would have recognised the story.

The ‘boys’ were dressed in rags and ribbons and performed under such fantastic names as the Green Knight, Viking Mick, Beelzebub and the Devil Doubt.

Each character would introduce the next with the line, “and if you don’t believe what I say …”

This strange version of the Clontarf conflict opened with one character declaring : “I’m bonny Brian Boru/ on Clontarf’s plain I slew/ Norsemen and Swedes/ Vikings of all breeds/ Their battles they did rue/ And if you don’t believe what I say/ Here’s Fionn McCool/ So clear the way.’’

Fionn then did some prancing around to music provided by a fiddler. And after Fionn, came the devil himself. “Here comes Beelzebub/ In my hand I carry a club/ And over my shoulder a frying pan/ Sure amn’t I a terrible man/ And if you don’t believe what I say/ enter the Green Knight/ He’ll soon clear the way.’’

The pay-off line was: “Sure we hope you’ll prove kind/ With your coins and strong beer/ For we’ll not be back here/ Until the next year.’’ There was a time when the money did go to the mummers but in this case it was donated to a local charity.

The Irish Folklore Commission was established in 1935 to collect and preserve Ireland’s declining oral tradition and vulnerable cultural heritage. Twenty-one full time – and a great many part-time – collectors were employed. Its wonderful collection of lore, from 1935 to1970, is accessible to the public at www.ucd.ie/folklore and www.duchas.ie