Wrenboys, Swarees and Scrap Parties in County Clare
On St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th, groups of musicians and dancers would get together in Clare, dress in disguise and set off around the countryside. Known as wrenboys or mummers, they called to houses, played music and danced sets, sang and recited. Then they collected money and invited donors to a mummers dance or swaree, which would be held locally a few nights later. A troop of wren boys was called ‘a batch’ and they gave a great boost to the Christmas.
Paddy Pharaic Shannon of Doolin, County Clare recalls the wrenboys of the 1930’s:
T’would still be dark on St. Stephen’s morn when you’d hear the horns blowin’ callin’ the wrenboys. If you looked out the window, you’d see all the candles bein’ lit in the cottages all around. The wrenboys used gather below at the bridge in Fisherstreet, they might be thirty or forty people in it between dancers and players and an amadan and an oinseach. They’d be dressed up with coats turned inside out and ribbons of green and gold. Stepheneen Hardy was their leader when I was young and he rode a black ass.
The wrenboys would travel the country that day and come back here at night. We’d hear the noise of them comin’ and everyone would go down to the bridge to meet them. Stepheneen would lead them through Fisherstreet and stop below outside Connor’s pub. That was their last stop. There used be great excitement and of course t’would go on for hours, music, set dancin’ and a bit of singin’. And then a few nights later there would be a big swaree beyond in Anton Moloney’s place.”
Swarees were held in houses that had a big kitchen with plenty of room for dancing. They were the most clandestine of country dances and had a wild edge or energy — Christmas spirit gone native. The ring of the word swaree conjures up mayem, even though it’s a corruption of the genial French word soiree. There was loads of drink at swarees and they lasted from dusk to dawn and longer. Nothing sent parish priests around the bend more than a confessional whisper that a swaree had taken place in the fold. It was like an ambush of the faithful by Beelzebub.
A notorious swaree took place in Coor, near Miltown-Malbay, County Clare in the 1950’s. Held in the house of a ‘strong’ farmer on the 28th of December, the place was mobbed and makeshift bars were set up in the cowshed to cater for the attendees. Musicians came from as far as Doolin and dancers from Inagh were there out of a face. Late at night there were emergency dashes to Miltown, Lahinch and even Ennistymon for barrels of porter and bottles of whiskey.
The following night there was a scrap party from the leftovers— a ‘low key’ event for the musicians and high dancers. This was also a mighty night and went on very late. And just when it was winding down, musicians arrived from a swaree in Cree with crates of beer.
Like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the drink seemed the replicate itself or something, and there was enough booty for a third night’s lashing. Word traveled fast and far and the second Scrap Party was a whale of a session. The Kilfenora crowd arrived, long coats and hair oil, machine guns in fiddle cases, they could have been from Chicago. Their music was turbo charged: their players took no prisioners and their dancers could batter heel or sole.
People said that the music from the swaree and the scrap parties hung over the countryside for weeks, like some sort of a fog. There wasn’t a minute of the day when they weren’t hearing jigs and reels and the clattering of steps on a flag floor.
A priest raided a swaree in the parish of Liscannor, County Clare. The ‘night’ was held in John Killoughrey’s house on New Year’s Eve. The place was packed and there was two barrels of porter and assorted bottles of poitin and whiskey in the parlor. On the kitchen table, Pakie Russell, concertina; Gussie Russell, flute; John Killoughery, fife; Paddy Killoughry, fiddle. The place was hopping when the priest arrived. He told John that the devil was in the house. John said,
‘Well isn’t it great work Father but I can’t see him.’
The priest supposedly tried to turn John into a pillar of salt or something, but the mumbo jumbo didn’t work.
‘And then he came at me with the umbrella,’ said John, ‘and wasn’t the dog under the table and didn’t he go for him. Well he got the fright of his life. He thought the dog was the devil! He ran out of the place roarin’ prayers.’
I took part in one of the last wrenboy expeditions who went collecting for a swaree in North Clare. We were a strange crew— a matchmaker, a carpenter, a boatman, a farmer, three students and four women mad for dancing. We weren’t the best mummers in Clare but we had rhythm and style. It was a rainy day and our progress was slow, delayed by hospitality and hot whiskeys. Our route took us through Corofin and there we tarried in Bofey Quinns, when we met a group of kindred wrenboys from Ruan. We played tunes and drank porter and lost track of our mission but had a mighty session. By the time we got back to Ennistymon that night, we were footless. Our money box was empty — only a few copper coins and a miraculous medal from Lourdes. There would be no swaree, a tradition was breaking.
The swarees died out in Clare in the 1980’s but the wrenboy tradition continues. So let it rip on day, Banner boys and girls, though my heart is in San Francisco, my spirit is with ye. Beir búa.
Books by Eddie Stack