You don’t have to be in Ireland long to become aware of Kilkenny’s dominance of that uniquely Irish sport, hurling. They have been All-Ireland Champions eight of the past ten years. But you may not be aware of the dominance of one West Clare village, in recent times, of another quintessentially Irish pastime – the Wren Boys Competition. That village is Cooraclare, 10 km from Kilrush on the south western tip of the County and they have just returned from the All Ireland Wren Boys Championship in Listowel, Kerry, where they have been crowned for the fifth year in a row. OK, there was only one other team competing but this does not diminish the achievement. You may not even be aware that there was a Wren Boys Competition I wasn’t. But I am now and my participation in the 2015 team makes me a most unlikely All-Ireland champion. Might have to rewrite my CV.
I have participated in a Wren Boys event before and I suggest you head to my blog for a bit more of the background.
This story though for me started at the Crotty Galvin Festival weekend in August in the village of Moyasta. I have also blogged on this recently.
Here I met Grainne, one of the organisers, and she invited me along. Clearly they were short of numbers to have countenanced such a thing but I never refuse an invitation despite in this case knowing absolutely nothing about it. I was told to get myself to Cree and a bus will pick me up at 6pm on the Friday night and drop me back at 6am on Saturday morning. She assured me the craic would be mighty and that was all I needed to know.
A couple of weeks later I am sitting next to Joe Joe Marrinan on a bus headed to the Ferry at Kilimer (with forty others) as he fills me in on some of the history. The competition had been going in Listowel as part of the Harvest Fair for 57 years. Cooraclare’s participation started forty years ago when local identitiy Denis Ledane decided it would be a good idea to take a team there. Interest faded but in 2011 the tradition was revived after 35 years in honour of Joe Joe’s father Marty who died that year. Joe Joe was installed into the prestigious role of King of the Wren. In their first visit to Listowel they won and have not lost since and it is easy to see why.
On the surface it looks a bit ridiculous, dressing up in skirts, silly hats and bright colours and tinsel. (at least there weren’t any bells and sticks a la Morris Dancers) but underneath it is a serious desire to preserve a fading Irish culture. The competition involves each team putting on a 45 minute show incorporating music, singing, set dancing, step dancing, sean nos, storytelling all presented with humour and passion. The team marched through the streets of Listowel, with turf fires burning atop hay forks, to a stage in the centre of the town square, to the strains of the Centenary March and from there on it was a celebration of all things West Clare. Many songs told of West Clare including the eponymous Chapel Gates at Cooraclare (after which the team is named) and this little corner of Kerry certainly knew about the virtues of the Banner County by the end of the night. A highlight was the finale with a lovely rendition of Feet of a Dancer leading in to a simply outstanding display of set dancing.. There were all ages participating with the dancing dominated by youngsters from villages dotted through West Clare, such as Moyasta, Kilrush, Cree, Mullagh as well as Cooraclare. Many of them were All Ireland champions from the recent Fleadh in Sligo and it absolutely shone through. There is no reason not to suppose that Cooraclare will continue to participate in and dominate the Wren Boys competition in the years to come judging by the enthusiasm with which everyone threw themselves into it..
A fantastic session at Foynes in Limerick on the way home and people had to be dragged back to the bus well after 2am. The music continued on the bus with a rousing singing session and the night finished for most people well after 4am as they were dropped off into the West Clare night by our long suffering bus driver.
Thanks to Grainne and Joe Joe and Tony and everyone else for making me feel so welcome. I felt privileged to be part of this tradition and I hope these few photos do it justice.