“What do ye be talkin’ about so quiet over there?” Johannah asked as she turned from the dishes she and Mary were puttin’ away. Andrew and John were sittin’ across from each other at the table, dabbin’ up the last of the cake crumbs and sharin’ the bottle of porter Andrew had brought. “It’s niver a good t’ing when the boys be talkin’ quiet like that,” she added.
Like someone had put him up to it, Patrick rose from the circle of little boys tracin’ lines in the ashes fallin’ from the fireplace. He coughed a bit as he found a place beside his da, “Remember the last Christmas when ye told us about the Wren Boys? How the boys in Moyne put a dead wren on a stick with some holly and ribbons, and they went from one house to the next singin’ a song and people gave ‘em money, they did. Ye said we were not big enough last year, but now we are much bigger, we are. Do ye think we can be off tomorra to sing and get some money?”
Andrew and John exchanged glances. “Aye, I remember tellin’ ye the stories, stories me da told me back when I was just a wee bairn like ye are now. But, things be changin’ they do. And…”
“No Da, no Da,” the boys chorused and Patrick continued, “They don’t change, not about the Wrens. The Wren boys have been visitin’ houses on St. Stephen’s Day right after Christmas and havin’ parties and getting a bit of money for hundreds of years. That’s the truth Da, isn’t it. Ye told us yerself last year.”
“Tis true that the Wren boys have been visitin’ from door to door in the village after Christmas for many years, but this year, things be different, I’m tellin’ ye,” his voice risin’ sharp.
“Like how different, Uncle John?” This time it was Andrew’s boy that spoke up.
“Remember a few months ago, boys, when ye went to Moyne to see about the free soup? Remember those poor people. Now think back, I’m askin’ ye. Did they have clothes like ye do?” John looked into the eyes of his own boys and nephew, one by one.
The boys looked down at their hands, down at the floor, and then slowly at each other. This time it was Timothy that answered. “Da, they had raggedy clothes, they did. And Da, they did stink, they did.”
And getting’ warmed up to the subject, Patrick added, “They were a coughin’ and that’s where we got the fever. Right Da?”
“That’s right boys. It was a hard lesson to learn, to see people from up the road so down on their luck. These days people just don’t have sweet cakes or even a coin or two to give to the Wren boys. We were blessed by the saints to have our chickens and pigs and cows. But there’s another side to all of this, and I suppose now’s the time to be tellin’ ye.”
John looked over the children’s heads toward Johannah and Andrew and Mary for some sign he should be after tellin’ the bairns about the English soldiers. Andrew nodded ever so slightly, and the two women looked first at each other, then nodded themselves.
“There was a time when we Irish governed our own country. Then there was a war, and the English had bigger guns and more guns. And they had a great army, bigger than the Irish. We Irish were not a warrin’ people, and when the English beat the Irish, they took our homes and our fields and they made laws to be keepin’ us poor. When I was a boy, we Catholics couldn’a go to school, nor own guns nor have one of the fine jobs or even own our own land.”
“And they took our taties Da, didn’t they?” said Patrick softly.
“No, not our taties, but our land, the land we had raised herds of cows for butter and milk and flocks of sheep for wool to sell. T’was something else that been killin’ our taties. But,” and John took a deep breath. “The English are afraid, all the time afraid the Irish might rise up against them. Oh, they’ve changed the laws. You know you can go to school now without fearin’ the soldiers would be findin’ ye and trowing ye and yer da and yer teacher into the jail. But still there’s the troubles.
“Remember back when ye were out playin’, and we heard the gunshots and saw the smoke over Moyne. And I couldna’ find you. I searched up the hill and down, out in the tatie fields along the lane and then followed the smoke in the sky to the village. And, yes, remember I spoke sharp with ye when I found ye. I was afraid ye might have got mixed up with the older boys who gather together and go after the soldiers from time to time, gettin’ their own selves shot.”
Again, John breathed, tryin’ to figger out how much to tell the children. “Now,” and he took a deep breath, “ I have heard that the English are thinkin’ the Wren boys are part of a secret gang. The English think the coins the boys get from families like ourn are goin’ fer guns to kill the soldiers. The soldiers think this gives them reason to be beatin’ and arrestin’ the boys. And lads,” he looked into the face of each of the boys and finally into the face of his nearly grown daughter Maggie, “I, we, your ma and da, want to keep ye safe. So as much fun as it is, to play the Wren boys, it is just too dangerous this year. People have no coins to give away and the mas and pas fear for the safety of their bairns.”
“So the das won’t be doin’ their own Wren boys visitin’ and they won’t be havin’ their own parties?” Patrick asked, a bit of fear, and jealousy too creepin’ into his question and turnin’ his words into a challenge.
“No Patrick, yer da and yer uncle will be stayin’ in the house this Wren’s Day, this St, Stephen’s Day. We might be doin’ a bit of singin’ the house. And,” knowing the bairns would hear the singin’ and see a bit of the drinkin’,” he continued, “someone might come visitin’ what has laid his hands on a bottle of ale, or even whiskey, but that’s keepin’ oursels to oursels and not doin’ ennathing to bring the soldiers to our door.” John paused, and then Andrew spoke up.
“Lads, and Maggie and, “Andrew looked to see if wee Bridget was still awake, “well, we’ll be tellin’ ye the truth. Tis been a hard year. Ye know it has been a hungry year, but we are all here and safe, and we have had a fine Christmas. Next year is another year. Mebbe next year t’will be safe to go about in a fine mask and fancy costume with yer mates. Mebbe next St. Stephen’s Day ye’ll have yer own live wren at the end of yer stick. Mebbe next year we’ll all have fine parties. But this year, this year, we’ll be thankful we are able to sit in this circle, blessed by the Virgin and the baby Jesus, with our bellies full for the day and our family close.”
Photo of paintings by Jack Yeats from https://roaringwaterjournal.com/tag/wren-boys/