Maura Mulligan was first-born in a family of six siblings, children of farmers who ran the family farm in the rural village of Aghamore, County Mayo. After immigrating to the United States and working for telephone companies and even trying life in the convent, Maura took up memoir and fiction writing 10 years ago. Her memoir "Call of the Lark" about her childhood in Ireland, immigration to America and her time spent in a convent is due from Greenpoint Press in 2012. For this Christmas week, Maura took some time to talk with TheWildGeese.com’s Dan Marrin about memories of Christmas on the family farm.
TheWildGeese.com: Tell me a bit about the farm on Aghamore.
There were several fields between [our farm] and the next house, two
acres between one house and another. It could be very lonely if people
were on their own, but when I was a child, people would visit each other
in the long winter nights. We did not have television then, of course,
or running water or electricity. Some people had a radio, but we did
not. We did have a gramophone, though, so some people would come to our
house to listen to songs. It was a whole different world.
WG: I read a piece from IrishCentral.com from 2009 where you talked about your childhood memories of Christmas in Ireland. What was Christmas like in your house?
Mulligan: In that time — the 1940s when I was a child
— we didn’t have much money, of course ... So … I don’t really remember
getting any exciting gifts. You’d always get something small -- just
something that was necessary, gloves, socks.
You got in your stockings, maybe, an orange and a few sweets, a small
toy or a pencil or something like that. Oranges were very unusual,
because they only came around at Christmastime. If you got an orange in
your stocking, it was a big deal.
WG: You said in that Christmas piece that December 26, St. Stephen’s Day, was even more of a joy than December 25.
Mulligan: Yes, absolutely because of the Wren Boys. I
remember most of all [when they came] the year of “the big snow,” the
blizzard of 1947 — all you could see was this white wall on all sides of
When the Wren Boys came, they’d come calling to every house in these
bright colors. They were all dressed up with ribbons, and they
disguised their faces and looked unrecognizable until they started
singing and dancing. Then we’d start to guess who they were. They
weren’t just boys either that did it -- they were called “boys” but
there were plenty of girls who did it. Eventually, my sister and I
joined them, as well.
In my grandfather’s time, the wren was a bird that would be killed and
carried on a holly branch around from house to house. He couldn’t tell
me why they did it — it seemed pretty brutal, and that stopped
eventually, thank goodness. But the practice of going around singing
and dancing from house to house continued.
Wren boys would come from different villages; sometimes they’d come from
as far away as five miles. They’d start very early in the morning; you
could hear their tin whistles in the distance. Then as they came
closer, it got more and more exciting.
my mother would open the door to them, it was just the most exciting
time. They came every year, but I remember that blizzard year most of
(Editor's Note: This illustration, titled "The Wren Boys,"
depicts the Christmas tradition of people processing with the bodies of
wren birds attached to a bush. It is from the book "Ireland: Its Scenery
and Character" by S.C. Hall; illustrations by Daniel Maclise, London:
Jeremiah How, 1841)
As a Wren “boy,” you’d spend days preparing what you’d wear, and then
you got money or treats, depending on how good you were at singing and
dancing, sort of like Halloween. Some musicians were quite accomplished
and would get more: if you didn’t know how to play music, you’d take a
comb and put a piece of newspaper against it and make a sound.
WG: Almost like taking blades of grass between your fingers to make a whistle?
Mulligan: The same idea.
WG: What kind of songs would they have been? Traditional carols?
Mulligan: The Wren people would sing whatever they’d like, not necessarily Christmas carols, but whatever they thought they were good at.
WG: Church hymns?
Mulligan: No, no, no one sang church hymns except in church. [laughs]
Maura Mulligan’s memoir, “Call of the Lark,” will be published by Greenpoint Press in the spring of 2012. More of Maura’s memories and writing is available on her website. WGT
Irish Minute, from TheWildGeese.com, gives voice to individuals supporting any facet of the heritage of the Irish, worldwide. Contact us, via newsletter@TheWildGeese.com, to suggest individuals to interview.
DAN MARRIN Is a New York-based correspondent and producer for TheWildGeese.com.