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Monthly Archives: December 2015
When I first came to live in Limerick some 30 years ago, I was totally astonished to have dozens of musicians and dancers arriving into my house throughout St Stephen’s Day, 26 December. From about 10 am onwards, they arrived. The earliest were small groups of local children with their musical instruments, often as young as 5 or 6 years of age. The great cultural network of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, active across much of Ireland, ensures that there are musicians in abundance of all ages to take part in events. In parts of Ireland, St Stephen’s Day,or Lá Fhéile Stiofán in Irish, is known as ‘Lá an Dreoilín’, meaning the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day. Announcing their arrival by loudly playing the bodhran (an Irish drum) as they make their way towards the door, and with barely enough time to shut the startled dogs away, the door is opened wide and the musicians stream in. Dressed in old clothing, mostly in white, with assorted bits of tinsel, straw and holly attached to hats of all descriptions, they file in and proceed to entertain us with a few songs, some traditional airs expertly played on fiddles, bodhrans, accordions, tin whistles and flutes, and of course,Irish dancing. The entire performance lasts less than 10 minutes, and they play themselves out again, back into the(often very wet or sometimes snowing!) night! The last person to leave carries a bough of holly to which is attached some red and white streamers and an effigy of a dead bird, plus a bag or box for donations, singing as he goes
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat (pronounced ‘trait’)
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren (pronounced ‘wran’)
The tiny wren has been prominent in legend and folklore for centuries. The story of the election of the wren as of King of the Birds is to be found all over Europe, first mentioned by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C as being one of Aesop’s Fables from the 6th Century B.C. The story goes that the title King was earned in a contest between all birds to see who could fly the highest. The eagle managed to soar highest of all, but then the wren, having concealed itself in the Eagle’s feathers and ‘hitched a ride’ flew out and soared even higher. And so the wren became king. Irish versions of the tale go on to say that because of the deceitful manner in which the title was earned, the wren was placed under a ‘geis’ or taboo and this is why it is hunted.
In the 1940s the Irish Folklore Commission carried out a survey of the rituals of St Stephen’s Day across Ireland from which it is shown that the wren was usually hunted on Christmas Day. The dead bird was tied to a bush, usually holly, and on the following day was paraded by the Wren Boys (usually bachelors) from house to house as they sang the wren song. Money and food collected was then used to put on a wren dance some days later at which it was hoped that young unmarried people might meet and find a spouse.
Other stories of the killing of the wren are to do with its role in betrayal – whether betraying the Christian martyr, Stephen, or betraying Irish soldiers by alerting the enemy in the Viking invasions of the 8th century or by warning the Cromwellian army of the approaching Irish in the 17th century. Whatever the origins, the Wren Boy tradition has changed down the ages – the wren is no longer killed, and the custom of visiting each home has died out in many areas, musicians now go from pub to pub to entertain larger crowds, and money is often collected for charity.
The St Stephen’s Day procession is alive and well in parts of Ireland, most notably in Counties Kerry, Clare and Limerick as well as in some other areas.
Men, women and children of all ages now go on ‘The Wran’. In recent years the tradition was revived in the city of Dublin where troupes of musicians singers and dancers take to the streets to give traditional entertainment for the feast of Stephen. While it is no longer a ritual to ensure fertility and prosperity in the community for the year ahead, it adds a colourful and enjoyable diversion in the Christmas season.
This is an edited version of a post from 2011.
The Irish Wren Tales and Ritual. To Pay or Not to Pay the Debt of Nature, Sylvie Muller, Béaloideas pp131-169 1996/1997.
‘There’s something about Christmas. There’s something about it that creeps inside and finds the child in you.’ These are the opening words of the magical Barry’s Tea ‘Train’ radio commercial. It is back on the airwaves so Christmas must be near! You can listen to it here.
Christmas in our Donegal home almost 60 years ago is a world away from Christmas in the early 21st Century. My mother used to begin the Christmas baking in late October when she made two rich fruit cakes. The whole process seemed to take days as she assembled sultanas, raisins and currants, chopped the mixed peel and the glace cherries, soaked whole almonds in boiling water so the skins would slip off, then chopped them finely. This scrumptious mixture was placed in a huge basin, doused in whiskey and covered with a clean cloth to soak overnight. During the evening the cloth was lifted when there was no adult in sight, so we could inhale the beautiful aroma of liquor and fruit. Tins were lined first with buttered greaseproof and then buttered brown paper – an art in itself, akin to Origami as it took a lot of expertise to line a round tin!
The following day the serious business of baking took place; flour and raising agent were sieved; the exotic mixed spice, nutmegs, cinnamon, ginger and mace were measured out; eggs were beaten, butter was softened and black treacle was measured out of the tin. An argument would then ensue as to who would get to lick the sticky black syrup from the spoon. This entire process took some hours as there was nothing mechanical in my mother’s kitchen — only a wooden spoon and an egg whisk with a wheel on the side. After all the beating, folding and mixing the tins were filled. We got to clean out every last bit of the mixture that still clung to the sides of the big cream coloured baking bowl, then we were banished from the kitchen and had to whisper for the rest of the day. Any loud noise or banging door might result in the cakes ‘sinking’! A good cook’s worst nightmare!
The next day the cooled cakes were stripped of the paper, pricked all over with a knitting needle,’fed’ with whiskey and placed in an airtight tin. Over the following weeks we had a weekly ritual of ‘feeding the cakes’ and replacing the greaseproof paper!
Similar preparation of fruit took place some weeks later when the Christmas puddings were made. A stale loaf was laboriously made into breadcrumbs. A bottle of stout was added to the mixture which made mixing easier for smaller people and we all ‘had a go’. The well-stirred mixture was placed on double layers of large squares of cotton – old sheets made excellent pudding cloths the corners were gathered up and tied securely for boiling, resulting in a beautiful round pudding! Christmas was forgotten about then until about a week before when the Yule Log was baked as were my mother’s speciality – ‘Snowballs’. These were rounded balls of cake mixture, baked, then covered in jam and rolled in shredded coconut – they always looked wonderfully tempting! The two rich fruit cakes were iced (two cakes as my younger brother had a birthday on Christmas Day and he was the only member of the family to have a birthday cake) and decorated. Then there was the marzipan to make – we smaller ones could not help with this as it was a very stiff mixture of ground almonds and sugars, but it looked lovely when done! About three days before Christmas we had the Royal Icing that was spread all over the marzipan-ed cakes and we enjoyed placing lovely little silver balls and little snowmen and tiny Christmas trees into the icing. The Birthday cake usually had less seasonal characters stuck into the royal icing, but always had NOEL piped on the surface, for that is my brother’s name .
Some days before Christmas the turkey arrived – alive. It had to be dispatched and hung for several days then ‘cleaned’. Our next door neighbour Katie Ward did the plucking and it was great to watch her do it as she expertly pulled out all the feathers and then singed the skin with a taper to get rid of the very last signs of a feather. On one occasion, when I was quite small I was given the job of carrying the turkey to her house. Carrying it by the legs with the long neck and head trailing down, wings flapped open, I was followed by a dog who wanted to eat it. He got hold of the head as I went in the gate. I climbed onto the wall and tried to hold the turkey up high so the dog could not reach my precious cargo. I was rescued when my roars for help were heard!
The ‘Christmas Box’ was a lovely tradition of the time. Walsh’s owned the main grocery shop in the village, selling fresh bread, butter, loose flour, bacon, loose biscuits, sweets, apples, Irel liquid coffee, Dundee cake and loose tea from the big foil lined tea chests, that had been packed into half pound packages. In the week before Christmas they gave a gift of a half pound of tea, a bag of sugar and possibly a bag of biscuits or a small cake to many of their customers. The ‘Christmas Box’ was greatly appreciated and well received by the recipients who were often of very limited means. It was a lovely tradition that epitomised the spirit of Christmas.
Excitement was now really building and we knew it was close when a strangely costumed man with face covered would burst into our kitchen (front doors were always open) and frighten the lives out of us. He was closely followed by a troupe of Mummers all well disguised, who rhymed their way through a performance in which there was a narrator, two bragging men who took part in a fight and various other characters. One of the protagonists dies as a result of having a sword plunged into him, but is revived by a Doctor who demands money. Most of the characters are long forgotten , but I do recall a few. There was Belzebub) and there was Jack Straw – ‘Here come I, Jack Straw, Such a man you never saw! and my favourite ‘Here comes I, Wee Divil Doubt, The biggest wee divil that ever came out’
Also in the days just before Christmas Carol Singers would arrive. They stopped outside the door, sang a few carols and hoped they might get a few pence in appreciation..they usually did!
Christmas Eve was a busy day – my father would bring home a Christmas tree that would be put up in the upstairs sitting- room and decorated with tinsel strips and tinsel ornaments. He also brought lots of berried holly and sprigs would be pushed in behind hanging pictures in every room. Paper chain decorations were hung from the ceiling in the kitchen. Stuffing for the turkey(or goose) would be made to be ready for Christmas morning – more grating of a stale loaf to make breadcrumbs! This delicious mix of breadcrumbs, onions, butter and parsley would have to be put out of reach so we would not eat it all up!
It was impossible to get to sleep with excitement and we were under constant threat if we did not go to sleep Santa wouldn’t come – this only added to the angst and ensured that we would not get to sleep for hours! But on Christmas morning we woke very early to find that Santa had in fact called and there would be something either on the bed or on the floor by the bed. A doll, a meccano set, a toy train, a button accordion, a jig saw – usually one toy each plus an annual or a book and a red net stocking filled with Cadbury’s chocolate bars. Bliss! The discovery was usually made in the early hours, and needless to say we had to run and wake the entire house to announce what Santa had brought!
Then it was up for 8 o clock morning mass. We walked the mile or so to the Church and one of the loveliest memories I have is of Mandy Gallagher’s house at the end of the village street with a tall candle burning in every window – a magical site on a dark morning! And so to the chapel to hear the choir accompanied by the big organ give an almighty rendition of Adeste Fideles and Silent Night! It was Christmas!
Lunch was served about 1 o’clock and consisted of a delicious clear turkey soup made from the neck and giblets of the turkey, that had bubbled away all morning on the Stanley No. 7 Range!
Our Christmas dinner was served much later at about 4.30 pm. On the menu was roast turkey (or goose) delicious parsley and onion bread stuffing, brussel sprouts (cooked in true Irish tradition for the best part of an hour, with a pinch of bread soda until they fell apart- not to be recommended in these modern ‘al-dente’ times!) and mashed potato. In north Donegal our name for the rather genteel sounding ‘mashed potato’ was in fact the very descriptive ‘poundies’! The entire meal was enveloped in my mother’s absolutely fabulously delicious white sauce, made with cornflour and milk and butter and parsley. After our meal we tucked into the Christmas pudding that was always served with hot milk poured over. Yummy!
A little while later it was time for cake – big triangles of beautifully moist cake topped with hard sweet icing were served – how we managed to eat it is a wonder in itself!
Later in the evening we had a huge box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray chocolates. The big box had a beautiful scene on its padded cover – a snowy mountain scape or a Santa scene. What luxury!
On some Christmases we had guests at our table – people who worked locally perhaps and who could not get home to their families for Christmas for many reasons – they may have not had the transport and there was no public transport to speak of, and they may only have had one day off work, so would have had to make the round trip in one day.
After dinner my father would sit in his chair and recite from The Collected Works of Robert Service and transport us to the snow-covered wilderness of the Yukon. He laughed heartily as he read his two favourite poems: The Shooting of Dan McGrew (featuring a lady that’s known as Lou!) and The Cremation of Sam McGee
‘One of these days’ is a phrase that trips off many an Irish tongue and whose meaning is clearly understood as being ‘sometime in the near future’. I was not so sure if this is the case across all the English speaking world, so a quick Google came up with the following: “One of these days” is an idiom that behaves like an adverb. It’s basically a drop-in replacement for “someday,” meaning something like “at some unspecified point in the future”. So there we have it!
‘One of these days’ goes around in my head at this time of year for two reasons, both of which are ingrained in my DNA.
Growing up in North Donegal with its dark star-filled skies meant that we were reasonably familiar with celestial goings-on, especially in winter. We spent many an hour out in the backyard with our mother, identifying the Milky Way, Orion’s Belt, The Plough, and The Seven Sisters as well as the occasional passing comet with its long tail. She would say ‘One of these days now you will see shooting stars if you are good’. Shooting Stars cropped up at reasonably regular times and wowed us as we headed over the barrack-brae towards Carrigart chapel for October Devotions, or to pray for the Holy Souls in November. Or, she might say: ‘One of these days now, you might see the Aurora Borealis’. The very sound of it was magic, that matched the dancing colorful waves in the sky! And so too with the Winter Solstice…’One of these days the sun will have gone as far away as it can go and will turn back to us and the days will begin to lengthen’. In days predating electricity in our houses, with only battery operated wirelesses and newspapers to inform us, we never knew exactly when these events might take place, but we knew when it was ‘one of these days’!
Solstices and equinoxes fall in March, June, September and December, some on the 20th or maybe the 21st or perhaps the 22nd or possibly even the 23rd. Who could possibly keep track of them, and which date referred specifically to which event? Old Moore’s Almanac was stocked in Speer’s shop at Christmastime and brought home. As it contained dates and predictions for the upcoming year, it didn’t help with the exact time of the winter solstice for the current year. And then, by the time we needed to consult it for other celestial events it was lost, probably having been thrown away in disgust when the first prediction of ten feet of snow that would close all schools for the month of January never materialized. So, on ‘one of these days’ we marked these wonderful events in Donegal. On, or around about, the correct dates.
Another event in our house was marked in a similar fashion. It too was a moveable feast, a winter, and December event, but not one we could check up in Old Moore’s Almanac. It was my father’s birthday. I often asked him, ‘what is your birthdate?’ and he said he wasn’t sure. He said his birth certificate said one thing, his baptismal certificate said another and his mother never agreed with either of them. So he spent his entire life being confused about it and confusing all of us around him. ‘Ah, it’s one of these days’, he would say, when all we knew was that it was going to happen in the days coming up to Christmas.
Dad was born in a small house in Templedouglas, Glenswilly, County Donegal in December 1921. He was the first son to my grandparents, James Gallagher a National School teacher in Templedouglas, and my grandmother Mary Friel, a seamstress from Pollaid in Fanad. He was the first brother of my Aunts May and Eileen. My grandfather had been born in Mulnamina, Glenties, so both he and his wife were relative newcomers and blow-ins to Glenswilly. My aunt Eileen had been born here two years earlier, so they had been living in the area for at least two years that we know of. In the days before hospital confinement, home births were the norm. The midwife would have been sent for and kettles of water put on to boil. My aunts often told me that Dad was ‘frail’. I wonder was it a troublesome birth? Was his life in some danger when he was born? Or maybe his mother was very unwell following the birth and everyone was concerned for her welfare. In any event, something gave rise to confusion about his birthdate. If he was at risk, he may have been baptized immediately. Registration may have been delayed. A church baptism may have taken place at a later date, but the norm would have been for baptism within three days of birth. We will never know.
Today, December 21 is being heralded at the Winter Solstice in these northern climes. However, to be absolutely pedantic about it, this year, 2015, the Winter Solstice will happen tomorrow, December 22. (Update – the exact time of the 2018 winter solstice will be 22:23 in Ireland). The winter solstice happens most often on December 21, but also sometimes on December 22nd and rarely on December 23rd.
Dad’s birth certificate here before me, states that he was born on December 22,1921. The 1921 Winter Solstice occurred on December 22 at 7 minutes past 9 am. I often wonder if in fact he may have been born just at that time, just right at the solstice? Again, we will never know.
So, on ‘one of these days’ in December 2015, I want to celebrate what would have been my father’s 94th birthday. I want to celebrate the solstice ‘new beginnings’ that would have given him great joy: His children in Donegal, Dublin, Perth Western Australia and Cork; his grandchildren in Dublin, Dubai, Cork, Limerick,Waterford and Western Australia; his great-grandchildren in Western Australia, in Dublin, in Limerick and soon to be in Skerries in Dublin. How proud he would have been! A winter solstice? A solstice birthday? New Beginnings? Yes!
At the winter solstice here in Ireland (weather permitting), at the astonishing Newgrange Stone Age Passage Tomb in the Boyne Valley, County Meath, the shafts of solstice sunrise will light up the chamber to mark the turning of the year. Across this island, there are ancient groups of standing stones aligned to capture the rays of light from the winter solstice sun, so this event has been of significance for thousands and thousands of years. How nice to think that Dad was born on ‘one of these days’, at such a significant time in 1921.
Happy Solstice to you all, and Happy Birthday to Dad!