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“Following The Wran”

Former Wren Boy, Mr Tom Ryan, salutes the tradition of “Following the Wran”(By Poet & Author Tom Ryan.)

As St. Stephen’s Day approaches I wish to alert the nation to a problem more immediate and more serious than even Brexit. I am an easy-going gent, and I’m normally reluctant to be provoked and I’m in favour of peace and harmony. But not at all costs!  There are strict limits to my patience and tolerance and I know where to draw the line.

What has incensed and infuriated me in recent years is the sad demise of the Wren or Wran Boys and Wran Girls, so traditional in many parts of rural Ireland, including my own native county of Tipperary.

I ask myself what is this great country of ours coming to, when we stand accused in the dock of disgracefully abandoning the noble tradition of “Following the Wran”, reneging on our heritage and culture for no acceptable reason other than laziness and neglect.  Or have we become too uppish and snobbish in these days of plenty and pride, when we know the price of everything and the value of little.  Our Education system has much to answer for, if this be the case and I am thinking of getting up a petition calling on the Government to immediately, if not sooner, proclaim National Wran Day to urgently awaken the Gaelic World, including the Diaspora, to the dangers posed by selling our cultured souls to the paltry princes of so called pride, privilege and progress, whilst shamefully neglecting a glorious old tradition.

I am proud to say I have served my country in my time by practising this old tradition on St. Stephen’s Day. My first appearance as a Junior Wran Boy was in 1957 when black in the face from shoe polish and muck (no great effort required for that in those days, of course,) I dressed up in old pyjamas and peaked caubeen (an old hat) and an ould ragged shirt and I set off proudly as to war, with my plastic mouth organ (the poor man’s accordion), accompanied by my musical pal on his melodica.

We were able, of course, to play only one tune which was Friedrich Silcher’s “Muss I Denn”, (Do I Have To); music later made more famous by Elvis Presley’s song “Wooden Heart” in 1961.

But we dutifully knocked on every door and half door in our town with our little concert. Too much acclaim, I am proud to say, and we gathered up enough pennies and half pennies for the price of the cinema, then showing a Gene Autry cowboy movie, preceded by “The Three Stooges” and a Tom and Jerry cartoon.  We had enough funds left over for a Fizz Bag, Gobstoppers and Cleeves Toffee which we purchased in the little shop on the corner on the street where I lived.

To this day I stoutly hold and maintain that it is great training for a young boy or girl to follow the Wran. It gives them a sense of appreciation that cash does not fall from the sky or Mam and Dad’s pockets all the time. But that it can be sometimes earned all by your little self while you are having craic and commotion doing it into the bargain.

I first encountered Wran boys in Fianna Road, Thurles, in the early fifties when a merry melodeon player and his fellow singers and musicians came into our kitchen and had us all soon singing popular tunes of the time such as:-  “On Top of Old Smokey”, “Red Sails in the Sunset”, “Irene, Goodnight, Irene” and other hits of the fifties. They sang and whooped and danced on the cobblestoned floor and were as merry and mirthful a company as you could ever hope to meet in a month of Sundays. They were decent people, proud to uphold their country’s ancient traditions and were rewarded with either a ‘thruppenny bit’ (a three pence coin) or a tanner (a sixpence coin) for their melodic and mirthful madness.

At first, they frightened me a little with their black polished faces and other strange attire as they carried a mock wren in a nest perched on a large bamboo stick around the streets, avenues and boreens (small roadways or lanes) of the town and district; while they sang and danced to their heart’s content. What almighty joy they bestowed on their appreciative audiences, so easily pleased in those now far off innocent days.

The perennial and mandatory favourite song of course, on La An Dreoilin (The Day of The Wren) or Stephen’s Day or Boxing Day went like this:-

“The wran, the wran, the King of all Birds,
On Stephen’s Day was caught in the Furze
Up with the kittle and down with the pan
And a penny or tuppence to bury the wran”

Such entertainment long ago usually ensured a most cordial response from the man or woman of the houses we visited, who never failed to drop at least a couple of pence (set aside for the pitch and toss) into our caps, waved in joyous anticipation under the noses of the happy people in the house.

So, let’s have an official ‘Follow the Wran Day’ to honour that immortal bird who magically, no matter how many times folks “bury” it, never fails to put in an appearance again and again on “La an Dreoilin” or St Stephen’s Day.  Sure, it wouldn’t be Christmas without our legendary feathered friend of Yuletide or Mi na Nollag.

[Tom Ryan, “Iona”, Rahealty, Thurles, County Tipperary. (Tel: 087 213100). Author of “Light Hearted Tales From The Watery Mall” ]

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