In Ireland no one seems to talk about Boxing Day – It’s St Stephens Day. But when I ask who St Stephen was, it’s like asking an Irish trad musician the name of the tune they just played. I just get a blank look.
So I did some research. Stephen was in fact a Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jew who died around 34 AD and was the first martyr of Christianity. He was accused of blasphemy and stoned to death. Thanks Wikipedia.
In Ireland though the day is also known as Lá an Dreoilín, meaning the Day of the Wren, an apparent reference to legends linking the wren to episodes in the life of Jesus. People (mainly kids) dress up in old clothes, wear straw hats and travel from door to door with fake wrens (previously real wrens were killed) and they dance, sing and play music.
It is also used by charitable organisations to raise funds so when Michael Talty asked me if I wanted to join the Wren Boys from the local Kilmurry-Ibrickane GAA I jumped at the chance. It meant getting up at 6.30, the morning after Christmas, which I had spent with friends in Connemara, and driving back to Quilty to be there at 10.00. Not easy.
The weather was not good. Cold and the threat of rain. A number of musicians and dancers had congregated in the GAA clubrooms and we were split into two teams of three musicians and four dancers. The idea was to go door to door to every home in the Parish, do a quick half set and solicit donations. First we had to agree on a tune (I won’t mind if I don’t hear Sally Gardens again!) and a speed, so after a quick run through with Pat on flute and Gerard on whistle and my fiddle tucked under my coat we piled into a windowless van and hit the streets.
We stopped outside every house (except those that the locals knew to be unoccupied) and knocked on the door. Without ceremony we would launch into Sally Gardens, the dancers would do their thing and we would be off again. People were very generous; I saw the odd 50 drop into the tin. Many made a donation and out of sympathy for us in the cold waved us on without playing. And cold it was. Squalls of drizzly rain swept in as the temperature seemed to continue to drop during the day. Eventually I resorted to playing in gloves and after a bit of practice, made a decent fist of it. I would tuck my fiddle under my coat when not playing and managed to keep it out of the elements. The bow however was another story. Ever tried to play with a wet bow?
Occasionally we were invited inside and that was special, as tables and chairs were pushed aside and if you briefly closed your eyes you could imagine you were transported back fifty years to a kitchen ceili. Occasionally we were also offered beer or cider. In one house we were treated to slices made by Amish girls in traditional headgear and costumes. There must have been a dozen of them. The things you find in West Clare.
There was a welcome break at Cooney’s Pub in Quilty, who put on soup and sandwiches, and then it was back out in the afternoon continuing what was a very long and challenging day until darkness descended finishing on my own street, the Clogher Road. Very fitting.
Despite the privations I had a ball and enjoyed the whole experience – a window into an Ireland that foreigners would likely not see. Thanks Michael and all my fellow dancers and musicians who accepted me and made me feel part of the community. For the record we raised 2,200 euros.