WREN BOYS AND A COAT TALE
Regular readers will be aware of my love of Listowel, the culture capital of Ireland. Now I have dug out a story written by the great Listowel writer, Sean McCarthy in 1986 four years before he died.
The Christmas Coat
By Sean McCarthy.
Oh fleeting time, oh, fleeting time
You raced my youth away;
You took from me the boyhood dreams
That started each new day.
My father, Ned McCarthy found the blanket in the Market Place in Listowel two months before Christmas. The blanket was spanking new of a rich kelly green hue with fancy white stitching round the edges. Ned, as honest a man as hard times would allow, did the right thing. He bundled this exotic looking comforter inside his overcoat and brought it home to our manse on the edge of Sandes bog.
The excitement was fierce to behold that night when all the McCarthy clan sat round the table. Pandy, flour dip and yolla meal pointers, washed down with buttermilk disappeared down hungry throats. All eyes were on the green blanket airing in front of the turf fire. Where would the blanket rest?
The winter was creeping in fast and the cold winds were starting to whisper round Healy’s Wood; a time for the robin to shelter in the barn. I was excited about the blanket too but the cold nights never bothered me. By the time I had stepped over my four brothers to get to my own place against the wall, no puff of wind, no matter however fierce could find me.
After much arguing and a few fist fights (for we were a very democratic family) it was my sister, Anna who came up with the right and proper solution. That lovely blanket, she said was too fancy, too new and too beautiful to be wasted on any bed. Wasn’t she going to England, in a year's time and the blanket would make her a lovely coat! Brains to burn that girl has. Didn’t she prove it years later when she married an engineer and him a pillar of the church and a teetotaler? Well maybe a slight correction here. He used to be a pillar of the pub and a total abstainer from church but she changed all that. Brains to burn!
The tailor Roche lived in a little house on the Greenville Road with his brother Paddy and a dog with no tail and only one eye. Rumours abounded around the locality about the tailor’s magic stitching fingers and his work for the English royal family. Every man, woman and child in our locality went in awe of the Tailor Roche. Hadn’t he made a coat for the Queen of England when he was domiciled in London, a smoking jacket for the Prince of Wales and several pairs of pyjamas for Princess Flavia?
The only sour note I ever heard against the tailor’s achievements came from The Whisper Hogan, an itinerant ploughman who came from the west of Kerry.
“ if he’s such a famous tailor,” said Whisper, “why is it that his arse is always peeping out through a hole in his trousers?.
Hogan was an awful begrudger. We didn’t pay him any heed. Tailor Roche was the man chosen to make the coat from the green blanket. Even though it was a “God spare you the health” job, a lot of thought went into the final choice of a tailor.
The first fitting took place of a Sunday afternoon on the mud floor of the McCarthy manse. The blanket was spread out evenly and Anna was ordered to lie very still on top of it. Even I, who had never seen a tailor at work thought this a little strange. But my father soon put me to rights when he said, “Stop fidgeting, Seáinín , you are watching a genius at work.” Chalk, scissors, green thread and plenty of sweet tea with a little bit of bacon and cabbage when we had it. A tailor can’t work on an empty stomach.
The conversion went apace through Christmas and into the New Year. Snip snip, stitch, stich, sweet tea and fat bacon, floury spuds. I couldn’t see much shape in the coat but there was one thing for sure – it no longer looked like a blanket. Spring raced into summer and summer rained its way into autumn. Hitler invaded Poland and the British army fled Dunkirk, the men of Sande’s Bog and Greenville gathered together shoulder to shoulder to defend the Ballybunion coastline and to bring home the turf.
Then six weeks before Christmas disaster struck the McCarthy clan and to hell with Hitler, the British Army, and Herman Goering. We got the news at convent mass on Sunday morning the Tailor Roche had broken his stitching hand when he fell over his dog, the one with the one eye and no tail. Fourteen months of stitching, cutting, tea drinking and bacon eating down the drain. Even a genius cannot work with one hand.
The ghosts of night will vanish soon
Anna looked very nice in her thirty shilling coat from Carroll Heneghan’s in Listowel as we walked to the train. Coming home alone in the January twilight I tried hard to hold back the tears. She would be missed. The Tailor was sitting by the fire, a mug of sweet tea in his left hand and a large white sling holding his right-hand. I didn’t feel like talking so I made my way across the bed to my place by the wall. It was beginning to turn cold so I drew the shapeless green bindle up around my shoulders. It was awkward enough to get it settled with the two sleeves sticking out sideways and a long split up the middle. Still, it helped keep out the frost. Every bed needs a good green blanket and every boyhood needs a time to rest.
When winter fades away
The lark will taste the buds of June
Mid the scent of new mown hay.
* * * * *
Psychologists tell us about “Christmas Regression.” It happens when we go home for Christmas or reunite somewhere else with the friends of our childhood. It is then that we attempt to revert to the roles played when we were young. But what if some of those roles are now almost non-existent? Over to that other great authority on all Listowel matters past and present, Vincent Carmody.
By Vincent Carmody
The wren-boy tradition on St. Stephen's Day is unfortunately, now nearly a thing of the past. Now, only a few small groups, or individuals carry on a tradition, the origins of which, are lost in the mists of time. In the time of the big batches of wren-boys, under the leadership of their King, these groups would traverse the country roads all day, and as evening and night approached, they would head for the larger urban areas to avail of the richer pickings in the public houses.
The North Kerry area was well catered for, with two large groupings in the Killocrim/Enismore and Dirha West areas, There was also a strong tradition in the Clounmacon side of the parish.
Some time after the wrens-day, it was the custom to organise a wren-dance. When the date was picked, a house offered to host the dance. The dances were all night affairs, with liberal quantities of food and drink provided.
In the early 1960's I spent three years in London, during which, I worked in a pub, The Devonshire Arms, in Kensington, for a year or so. At this time, The Harvest Festival Committee, under Dr. Johnny Walsh, organised the wren-boy competitions in Listowel. Mr Johnny Muldoon, of London, had met Dr Johnny in Listowel and told him that he would organise two dances in his Dance Halls in London, provided that the Listowel committee send over three or four wren-boys to be in attendance. During their stay in London, Dan Maher, who managed the Devonshire, invited the Listowel contingent to the pub. On the particular evening I was serving in the lounge bar. (the pub was a gathering place for many film and TV actors who would have lived nearby). Suddenly Dr.Johnny threw the double door open, and in came the Listowel wren-boys, led by the leader, Jimmy Hennessy. Jimmy, wearing a colourful pants, had only some fur skin over his shoulders and chest and a headpiece with two horns. The others followed, faces blackened, and wearing similar outfits, all beating bodhrans. To say the least, those present did not have an idea what was happening. To this day, I can hear the remark which one man, Sir Bruce Setan, (he, of Fabian of the Yard) at the counter said to the other, Christopher Trace (of Blue Peter fame), Blimey, they're coming in from the jungle. They will kill us all.
There was no one killed, and I think that Jimmy Hennessy enjoyed drinking pints of Guinness and pressing the flesh, surrounded by people he usually saw, only in the Plaza and Astor.
Listowel Wren Boys of Yester Year.
* * * * *
LACKEN COMMUNITY JUNIOR TRACTOR AND TRIKE RUN
Our area of west Wicklow is a favourite venue for
Tractor BalanceTractor Runs.
But on Sunday 29th December there was a new departure, The Lacken Community Junior Tractor & Trike Run. As night fell on the mild post-Christmas evening twenty five children decked out in colourful clothing took to the road with their mini tractors and mini trikes.
One Family Ready
All vehicles were adequately lit and the event, which was organised by local man Theo Clarke, was well supervised by adult volunteers. Theo gives a big thank-you to, “everybody who helped out.”
Organiser Theo Clarke and his wife.
The event is described here by Diana Gallagher
On Sunday evening just after 6pm in the little village of Lacken, a rumble was heard, this was the rumble of plastic wheels against the normally quiet road. It was the first Lacken Kiddies tractor run!!!
Ready to go.
The pedal powered vehicles consisted of John Deere tractors, scooters, bicycles and go-karts, a few motorised vehicles took part also, but leg power proved the better as not all battery operated vehicles finished, as one didnt even start the run!!The adults shouted, encouraged and even pushed some of the kids towards the finish line!!
The Future on Wheels.
Each "vehicle" was lit up with Christmas lights, tinsel and some even had christmas trees attached!!
Well lit Lacken.
The registration only took a few minutes, and each child got a numbered sticker for their mode of transport. It was a great event, the craic was good and the kids loved it! They have seen plenty of tractor runs and now it was their turn to shine!! There was already talk amongst the kids of attending the run next year and so we look forward to a bigger Kiddies Tractor Run 2020.
* * * * *
Irish New Year Blessing
“Go mbeire muid beo ar an am seo arís.”
"May we be alive this time next year."
Have a great 2020. Don’t eat any yellow snow and I’ll see you in February.
Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.