John B Keane: Know your wren boys - they come in different shades

ON ST Stephen’s Day last I had ample time to study the many wrenboys and wrenboys’ bands which appeared on the passing scene from time to time.

ON ST Stephen’s Day last I had ample time to study the many wrenboys and wrenboys’ bands which appeared on the passing scene from time to time.

Other years I was owner of a sick head for the greater part of the day but this Christmas because of a stomach ailment my drinking was no more than token drinking and consequently when it came to studying wrenboys the following day I had, as it were an awful lot going for me.

Now there are several different types of bands, and there are several different types of wrenboy.

There is the big townland or parish band bursting at its seams with bodhrans, melodeons, concertinas, fiddles and what have you. There are dancers too, because everybody knows that no real wrenboys band should be without them. In fact it is widely held that a band without dancers is not really a wrenboys’ band.

These big bands are a credit to the parishes or townlands from which they spring, and with the moneys collected there is always a Wren night with dancing ‘till dawn and porter galore.

Then there is the middle-sized band which may come from an area where emigration has taken its toll, an area whose most distinguished fiddlers are in Wolverhampton, and whose chief accordion player is in Camden Town.

These middling bands may come from an area wanting in musicians, but the fact that they are only middling-sized does not detract in any way from their stature. In fact they are often as good, if not better, than larger bands.

Next we must deal with the smaller bands, although certified wrenboys insist that a band, in order to be a band, must have at least one singer, one dancer, one fiddler, one melodeon or concertina player and one drummer. The first small band I saw on Saint Stephen’s Day had no fiddler. It consisted of three members.

The first played a melodeon or, rather, attempted to play it. The second played the bodhran, and the third had no musical function. He was the cashier.

They advanced towards the big bridge and determination written all over their faces. From this type of wrenboy there is no escape, that is if one wanted to escape. I parted with five bob. It was accepted somewhat sourly and I got the impression that a pound would be more appreciated.

In return for my five bob, the drummer drew a belt at his bodhran and the melodeon player obliged with two notes on his melodeon. It was only when they stopped to harass an old woman further up the road that I realised their category.

These were rogue or breakaway wrenboys. Maybe it was that one of the trio was the cashier with a bigger band and that his returns were not acceptable to the band’s accountant, or maybe it was what we in the business call a loose player, that is to say he could only play on his own and would be a menace in a group of musicians.

It could be, of course, that one of the three was outlawed by the big band because of drunkenness.

This is not to suggest for a moment that wrenboys’ bands frown on drink. Indeed, no, and I personally know distinguished wrenboys who are not above bolting sixteen pints in the round of a day.

A drunken wrenboy or, rather, one who is seen to be drunk, reflects poorly on the band as a whole. A wrenboy is never dismissed from a big band just for drinking. He has to be, again what we in the business call “thrun down” with drink.

The next group is the pair which consists of two musicians or one musician and a cashier. These are only in the game for the money they make out of it, and often they travel in pairs because they are afraid to go on their own, which brings us to that most dangerous of all wrenboys, the loner, or private wrenboy.

The private, or loner, is one who missed the rest of the band when they set out that morning, who arrived on the scene hours after the band had left the rendezvous.

He then has two choices. He can go back to be the pub or he can go on his own. Generally he goes on his own, and does as much good to his fellow wrenboys as a riderless horse does to the other horses in a steeplechase.

The lone wrenboy is shifty and dangerous to a point where he is almost a hold-up man. He has no music, and the only way one has of knowing that he is a wrenboy is the blob of boot polish on his cheeks and the fact that his coat is turned inside out.

If he has whiskey taken he can be intimidating. The only cure for this kind of wrenboy is turn your coat inside out and pretend you’re a wrenboy yourself.

Jack’s house

The week before last I went to Glin to watch the installation of Jack Wilberforce Faulkner in his new home. The home, a delightful two-roomed house with toilets is situated on the road to Athea, just a quarter of a mile from the heart of Glin.

The site for the house was freely and generously given by the Knight of the Glin. A large crowd turned up for the handing-over ceremony. National and provincial newspapers were well represented and television cameras whirred to capture the historic moment. At the reception afterwards there was singing and some speechmaking.

There was drink galore, and throughout it all Jack Faulkner sat in front of a roaring fire and played the role of host incomparably.

He made a short and touching speech in which he said his only regret was that his wife, Katie, was not alive to share the home with him. He also expressed the hope that his many friends would call to see him from time to time, and he finally thanked from the bottom of his heart the numerous people who contributed in any way to the building of the house.

It was a night memorable for the delightful singing of the ageless Canon Ryan, Glin a famous parish priest. Father Daniel Murphy, formerly of Glin and now stationed in Newcastle, also contributed to the night’s entertainment, as did Bill Culhane and very many charming Glin ladies, whose singing made the occasion a truly delightful one.

The folk of Glin have a right to be proud for they have set an unforgettable headline for the parishes in every diocese in the country. Would that there more like them.

In a long and witty speech, Desmond Fitzgerald, the twenty-ninth Knight of Glin, concluded like this: “Jack” he said, and he addressed himself to Ireland’s most famous itinerant, “remember that you and I are neighbours now, and must therefore conduct ourselves”. So ended a unique function.

Outside in the frosty air, people wished each other a happy new year. Overhead the stars danced heel and toe and a hunter’s moon looked down on the first slate roof that ever covered the wandering head of Jack Wilberforce Faulkner.

The other night I sat down and endeavored to recall some of the events which made the past decade an outstanding one. Kate Faulkner died, God be good to her. Canavan’s talking dog, Banana the Fourth, was ruthlessly run down by a touring American priest and as a result, died instantly. He is survived by his loquacious nephew, Banana the Fifth, who we all fervently hope will one day be as wise and witty as his sagacious uncle.

My friend, Patrick Ahern, of Glensharrold, Carraigkerry, became a matchmaker and at the time of writing, I have before me the first application of the year for a wife, I will send it to Pat Ahern. In Knockanure a man threatened to burn himself to death on account of his having no wife. Through the good offices of his sister a Pakistani girl accommodated him, and now he lives happily married in Stratford.

Con Hunt of Athea won the worlds blackpudding eating championship in Athea during the carnival, and so joined the many other world champions who hailed from those parts.

There may have been other, more widely published happenings. What if there were. There are none so important as those I’ve mentioned, and if there were I would like to hear of them.

Going back over the decade, the best story I heard was in the bar of the dog track one fine night in Ballybunion. It was the opening of the Lartigue monorail system in Listowel. Monsieur Lartigue himself was present, as were other other notables. the gentry as they were euphemistically called in those days, were present as well. Also in the crowd were a few mountainy people who had never seen a train before, much less a monorail.

There was a great air of excitement in the station yard and finally, when it was announced that the train was approaching a hush fell over the crowd.

Two mountainy men who had come many miles to witness the spectacle huddled themselves close together for safety. After awhile one bravely locked down the track and saw the long, iron, snake-like contraption thundering towards them.

‘Run for your life,” he called to his companion. Both ran and did not stop till they reached the safety of the bridge overlooking the station The train had stopped and miraculously or so our friends thought, there were no casualties.

“What do you make of it?” one said to the other.

“Ah” said the other. “It might be alright now, but one day ‘twill come in sideways and kill them all.”