Christmas 2006

Ten days ago, we finished the last of six Christmas Celtic Sojourn concerts at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston to sold-out crowds. Congratulations to Brian on establishing this as an annual Boston Christmas tradition in just three years. I participated in the first one at the Somerville Theatre in 2003. It was just one show and I never imagined that it could grow so quickly.

It was interesting to get a glimpse of what it is like to be in a theatrical run of a musical or play. There are many hours of technical preparations before the curtain rises; sound checks and lighting cues, prop placement, exits and entrances. All these things have to be planned for twenty musicians, singers and dancers, a task that was handled with impeccable skill and diplomacy by the director, Paula Plum. For a couple of days before the show opened, we did a lot of sitting around and waiting on stage or in the dressing rooms. But there was great camaraderie between the cast and we had a lot of fun as well. The hardest part was seeing so little daylight. There were nine high-definition television cameras there to record the final show so it should be on a TV near you next Christmas. They taped almost three hours of material for a one hour show so hopefully one of my bits will survive the edits.

At one point in the show, Brian and I talked about the Irish Christmas traditions that we miss here in the USA like 26th December, St Stephen’s Day, and the custom of going off with the wren or the “wran” as it is usually pronounced. The Wren Boys can still be seen in many parts of Ireland. In the old days, groups of young men would kill a wren and place the body in a holly bush. They would then dress up in costume and carry the holly bush and wren around to neighbor’s houses and sing the Wren Song outside the door. This usually resulted in an invitation inside for food and drink. Coins were also collected to defray the cost of burying the wren.

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze
Although he was little, his honor was great
Jump up me lads and give us a treat

As I was going to Killanaule
I met a wren upon the wall
Up with my wattle and knocked him down
And brought him into Carrick town

Dreolin, dreolin where’s your nest
‘Tis in the bush that I love best
‘Tis in the tree, the holly tree
Where all the boys do follow me

Up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wren

I followed the wren three miles or more
Three miles or more, three miles or more
I followed the wren three miles or more
At six o’clock in the morning

I have a little box under my arm
Under my arm, under my arm
I have a little box under my arm
A penny or tuppence would do it no harm

Mrs Clancy is a very good woman
A very good woman, a very good woman
Mrs Clancy is a very good woman
She’ll give us a penny to bury the wren

In more recent times, we would forego the wren part and just disguise ourselves with greasepaint and homemade costumes and go wandering around to country pubs singing and collecting money for local charities like Meals on Wheels. We’d often have a convoy of ten or fifteen cars roaming around little villages like Kilmoganny, Tullahought and Ballypatrick.

My uncle Bobby Clancy, Aoife’s dad, was our our fearless leader. He had the ability to persuade even the shyest person to improvise a costume and join in the fun. I remember one year when I was about 7, Bobby appeared at our house in Waterford to take us “off with the wran.” My mother was delighted but my father, who was not an extrovert, adamantly refused to participate. But Bobby was relentless and he finally convinced my father that he could disguise him so that even his own mother wouldn’t recognize him. He told him that he didn’t have to sing; all he had to do was collect the money for the Meals on Wheels. So with a blackened face and a floppy woman’s hat and a toga, my father set out with the gang. Still fearing that he might be recognized, he had solicited a promise from Bobby that they would stay well away from any pubs in the city. True to his word, Bobby packed us all in his old black Ford and headed off to the village of Kilmacow in county Kilkenny. We stopped outside a pub and started singing before going in. So far, so good. The pint-drinking patrons received us warmly. My father went around with a tin can collecting money. There was another little room off the main room in the bar and as he stepped through the door, a voice piped up, “How’re you Sean? Did you have a good Christmas?”

He was mortified. I’m sure his face must have turned a bright red beneath the layers of black greasepaint. He wanted to murder Bobby, who found the whole incident highly amusing. I don’t remember what happened after that but I know that my father never again went out with the wren.

During the show’s run, we stayed at Jury’s Hotel in Boston, a ten-minute walk from the theatre. It was a bit like running the gauntlet with all the smokers standing outside on the sidewalk getting their fix. The smoke smells even more toxic outside, maybe because you don’t expect it. It was such a relief to step inside for a breath of fresh air. How things have changed!

I read in today’s paper how iTunes had to shut down temporarily over Christmas as it was swamped with orders. If you just got an iPod as a present, you might be interested to know that my CD Recollections is now available on iTunes.

I will hardly get time to blog again before December 31st, so I’d like to wish you all a very Happy and Wonderful New Year!

The Great Procastinator

Being Irish, I have the procrastination gene in abundance but, on Thursday, I actually took the wicker chairs off the porch and put them in the cellar. I had been thinking about doing that since October and it felt so good to get it done that I even put up Christmas lights. Not only that but I stacked firewood and burned the remaining gas in the lawnmower and cleaned and covered the gas grill. What the Hell is wrong with me! If this keeps up, I may start working on my taxes. I’m pretty sure it’s just a passing aberration but I’m going to keep an eye on myself just in case.

WGBH to film Christmas Celtic Sojourn

I got an email a few days ago from Brian O’Donovan, who is organizing and hosting the Christmas Celtic Sojourn at the Emerson Majestic Theatre in Boston next week. The five shows are almost sold out and they have added an addition show on Monday 18 December. We were going to be there anyway on Monday as WGBH television is filming the concert for future broadcast but now due to demand it has been opened to the public. If you are interested in being part of the recording, you can email Brian for more information.

The Clancy Legacy

Last Saturday, Aoife Clancy, Donal Clancy, George Keith and I did a concert in Fairfield, CT as The Clancy Legacy. Last summer at the Irish Arts Week in the Catskills we did a workshop together under that title and it looks like the name has stuck. Gregg Burnett of the Shamrock Traditional Music Society was one of the people at that workshop and he asked us to do the concert in Fairfield. We really enjoyed it and now we are planning to do more concerts with that line-up and that name. Don’t hold your breath but “we’ll be back.”

The Songman, Tommy Sands

I just finished reading Tommy Sands’ book, The Songman: A Journey in Irish Music. I enjoyed it immensely. Tommy has been a friend for thirty years now but there is much in the book that I never knew about him. He is a fascinating man and he has had an amazing life. He is a gentle and positive presence wherever he goes and no one who meets him is ever the same afterwards. He has a way of looking at the world that I wish I could hang on to but I’m just a bit too cynical. Part of the delight of reading the book is seeing the world through Tommy’s eyes and having some of his enthusiasm rub off on you. It makes you feel like you should and could do more to make the world a better place.

It also brought back some great memories of Tommy and his brother Colum. When I was living in Carrick-on-Suir back in the late 70s, the Sands brothers would come down for a visit every now and then. They would play a gig in Waterford at the Granville Hotel on a Friday night and at our place, Tinvane Hotel on Saturday night. I usually went with them to Waterford where the concert was inevitably followed by that session that went on ‘til the wee hours. One such night, actually it was about 5:00 AM on a winter’s morning, we were driving back to Carrick and just a couple of miles outside Waterford we came along by Granagh Castle which was situated on a wide sweeping bend in the river Suir. A gigantic daffodil-colored moon was floating right on the broadest part of the river and it stopped us in our tracks. It was stunning. We pulled the van over to the side of the road and got out to appreciate it fully before it changed as it surely would. We had some drink taken, as they say in Ireland, but we were reasonably sober. We just knew how fortunate we were to experience such an amazing sight when the rest of the county was fast asleep. We saw distant car lights approaching and bemoaned the fact that these other nighttime travelers were driving in the wrong direction to see the amazing sight. But Tommy, being a man of action, stepped out into the road and flagged the car down. There were two wary men in the car and they were a bit hesitant about rolling down the window. However they could not understand what Tommy was saying until curiosity prevailed and the window opened a few inches.

“Have you seen the moon?” asked Tommy, pointing towards the river behind them. “Look! Look at the moon, isn’t it fantastic?” The two guys were hardly awake and didn’t seem to care a damn for the moon. Colum and I walked over to plead the case but the car suddenly screeched off leaving traces of black rubber on the frosty road.

We were mulling over what might have made them so unfriendly when it occurred to me. There had been several reports in the local papers about the IRA training in the locality of Mooncoin, which was just up the road. I have no doubt that being flagged down by three guys, two of who had distinctive Northern accents, and asking them if they had seen the moon must have seemed like some IRA set-up.

That story didn’t make it into the book but many great stories did. It is called The Songman: A Journey in Irish Music and it is published by the Lilliput Press in Dublin. It is available from