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The Wren Boys by Carol Ann Duffy

Cover image © Picador/Dermot Flynn
As an English teacher it is impossible to escape Carol Ann Duffy. A couple of years back, a colleague in my department perhaps to rub this in, perhaps because of the story's link to Ireland, or maybe just seized by the Christmas spirit, bought me one of Duffy’s small seasonal poems, The Wren Boys, beautifully illustrated by Dermot Flynn.

The tale of the poem links to a rural Irish tradition that takes place on St Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas Day, whereby groups of people will dress up and go hunting a wren.

According to the various myths, the wren, or wran, is thought to have betrayed the Saint’s whereabouts to his captors with its song and to have cheated against an eagle in a flying competition.

The writing is wonderfully evocative of a cold, rural Christmastime:
The old year, a tear in the eye of time;
frost on the blackthorn, the ditches glamorous
with rime; on the inbreath of air,
the long, thoughtful pause before snow.
The air is filled “everywhere musky with peat from the first fires/as though the hour had started the day/with a neat malt” which, to a country boy like me, can’t help but strike a nostalgic chord.

When the Wren Boys’ search is ultimately fruitless, they still manage to end the day with a celebration:
while the Wren-Boys boozed and danced at the Inn;
one with a widow, one with the farmer’s daughter,
one with a sweetheart, one with a sozzled priest.
Later, the snow settled, a star in the east.
It’s a short read, but a perfect way to start December, or to pass the time whilst you listen to your family argue over whether to watch an Agatha Christie adaptation or Wallace and Gromit on Christmas Day.

The full poem and some of Dermot Flynn's illustrations can be read on the Guardian's website: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/19/wren-boys-carol-ann-duffy-christmas-poem

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