and other jarring notes.
“Oh please give us something for the little bird’s wake …”
The Wren in the Furze, The Chieftains
There’s certain music that speaks of my childhood, and of Christmas.
The Chieftains’ album The Bells of Dublin is the perfect Venn diagram overlap of the two.
Have you ever heard the album? Go have a listen. I made Joel listen to it this weekend. It’s very… below-decks-on-the-Titanic. He liked it, but with a bit of a shrug.
I said: it’s because you’re not Irish, and winked at my son. If you are even a bit Irish, this music speaks to your soul.1
The music is beautiful but with a dark belly to it, the kind that you only hear when you pay attention, when you listen to the words.
I always listened to the words when I was little. I always paid attention.
I still missed things.
There’s a home video from when I was about three or four. My sister is little, still a baby. My dad is dancing me around the living room to the Chieftains. My sister plucks at his leg and he lifts us both up. It’s a classic warm family moment, captured on film.
No one would ever know anything is amiss, even if they paid attention. It’s right there on video, evidenced for all: happy family.
You never know what’s real and what’s not.
I struggle to parse what’s real and what’s not, especially when I peer back.
The music I loved though, I know it’s real.
It’s music made to put a spring in your heel.
That’s in the song called The Wren in the Furze.
I remember my dad told me it was about the birds having a competition to see who could fly the highest and be crowned king of all the birds. The tiny wren hid in the feathers of the eagle and just when the eagle had flown as high as it possibly could and all the other birds had fallen away down below, the wren popped up out of its feathers and flew just that little bit higher.
But the air was too rarefied up there. The wren plummeted down into the furze, dead before it hit the ground.
“The wren, oh, the wren, he’s the king of all birds. On St. Stephen’s Day, he got caught in the furze.”
The Wren Boys were the musicians, going door to door on Stephen’s Day (that’s Boxing Day, in England, the day after Christmas) singing the song about the wren, begging for a penny or a big lump of pudding or some Christmas cake.
“A fistful o’goose or a hot cup o’tay. And then we’ll all be going on our way.”
My dad never told me there’s an even darker story here.
Tradition had it that, before they went round singing, the Wren Boys would hunt down a real wren and tie it to a pitchfork. A druidic cultural hangover, this mid-winter sacrifice of the wren, the bird that sings when the days are shortest.
In Wales, they tell the story of a woman long ago who led the men down to the river where they all drowned. She turned into a wren and flew away, but is still hunted this time of year.
“So it’s up with the kettle and it’s down with the pan, won’t you give us a penny for to bury the wren.”
The words of the song made me sad when I was little: the poor wren.
I knew without knowing. There was more darkness in that song than I could perceive.
Mixed in with the lyrics are nonsense words. In jazz, it’s called scatting. In Irish, lilting — or port a'bhéil: mouth music, tunes from the mouth.
There’s a deep thrumming heartbeat of a bodhrán. The piping call of a flute answers it.
This song is music made to put a spring in your heel.
It’s a load of nonsense wrapped around a good story. At its core is a dark, frightening truth.
It can be made into a thing of beauty, this dark, nonsense life. Like all good tunes.
But there’s no escaping the darkness.
All we can do is sing a little mouth music when the days are shortest.
Then we’ll all be going on our way.
Being half-Irish tends to get lost behind a very not-Irish accent. It’s there though: a knot of dark, hidden complexities, like blight in a potato.