Caught in the Furze


'Guest Post' by Copernicus

It's the most wonderful time of the year…for some.

While Stephen's Day is now upon us, it is still not too late to impart to fústarers something of the sinister side of the holidays. Depending on where in Europe a child awoke in the wee hours of Christmas morn, it may have found the hideous devil Krampus had popped down the chimney, the gargantuan Yule Cat may have tried to eat it; it could have been kidnapped and beaten by six to eight black slaves in the company of a Turkish bishop, forced to endure the grotesque pantomime that is the deranged dance of the madmen, or have had to hide between cock-crow and daybreak from evil trolls.


Perhaps Santa was accompanied by Pére Fouettard, the child butcher. Worst of all, mum and dad may have missed those fell words "batteries not included" which portend the ultimate yuletide disaster.

As the above demonstrate, there are many Christmas traditions which smack not a little of less than bonhomous sentiment during this season of goodwill. In his introduction to A Celtic Christmas (New York: Sterling, 1996), Mairtín Ó Griofa describes the following charming ritual:

In times past in some parts of Cork and Kerry it was customary for the "vanitee" [bean-an-tí or woman of the house] on Twelfth Day to take out a round cake of hastable [sic] bread and throw it against the house door crying "I wish hunger or starvation to the Sasanach [English]", or some other province, county or parish in Ireland.

This expression of Christian fellowship was expected to secure plenty and prosperity to the woman's own district for the year. While the Irish Christmas cake could be expected to produce the bounty baked into it of a ring to foretell marriage, a coin to foretell wealth and a pea or bean to ordain luck, it also contained a desiccated stick which doomed its discoverer to a life of barren singlehood. Nice pressie, and guaranteed to give the rest of the family that much-needed Christmas laugh.

Ó Griofa also tells us that formerly bits of rag were put in the mix, which rather reminds one of the Father Ted episode in which Mrs Doyle appallingly bakes a Christmas-style jumper into a cake for Eoin McLove.

It is, of course, the wheel of the year, the yuletide, and it can be no surprise to find libidinous and goatish beasts like Krampus abroad as the holly king is vanquished by the oak. Slowly, the days will grow long, and what is young and vigorous assert itself.

The Romans celebrated this time of year as 'Saturnalia', a festival of libertine excess and even violence which took place over 12 days around 1st of January and involved men disguised with beards or as women or animals. Their wild orgies went as far as human sacrifice, which is where it all went wrong for Timothy, first Bishop of Epheseus, and a correspondent of St. Paul's. After that, the Church was less than enthusiastic about encouraging people to mark the seasonal contest of sun and moon, light and dark, vigour and contemplation in the traditional manner.

According to Stephen McDonagh, who refers to such rites in Green and Gold: The Wren Boys of Dingle (Brandon, 1983), "particular condemnation was reserved by the Church for the custom of wearing animal masks which were seen as representing demons released from the underworld". You don't have to be Dr. Freud to raise an eyebrow at that interpretation. You do have to be Freud to identify "demons" as representations of carnal riot, and "underworld" as the dark, limbic sexuality at the heart of the human condition.

Despite repeated ecclesiastical attempts to knock vernacular celebrations on the head, mumming survives, not least in Ireland, where the Dingle 'wran' continues to be the enthusiastic indulgence of the townsfolk each 26th of December. An important animal guise, as fans of The Wicker Man will know, is the hobby horse, also associated with Halloween and Bealtaine, and it is no stranger to the narrow streets and lanes which twist and meander from the hill above 'An Daingean' down to the harbour. The origins of the Láir Bhán (white mare) may well relate to the following testimony of Gerald of Wales, a 12th century monk and, er, travel writer, who detailed his time in Ireland in Topographia Hibernica:

There is in the northern part of Ulster, namely in Kenelcunell [Tyrconnell] a certain people which is accustomed to consecrate its king in a rite altogether outlandish and abominable.

Strong words. Whatever can he mean?

When the people of that land had been gathered together in one place, a white mare is brought forward into the midst of the assembly and he who is to be inaugurated, not as chief but as beast, not as king but as an outlaw, embraces the animal before all, professing himself to be a beast also. The mare is then killed immediately, cut up in pieces and boiled in water. A bath is then prepared afterwards in the same water. He sits in the bath surrounded by all the people and all, they and he, eat of the meat which is brought to them. He quaffs and drinks of the broth in which he is bathed, not in any cup or using his hand but just dipping his mouth into it round about. When the unrighteous rite has been carried out his kingship and dominion has been conferred.

Yikes. Any resemblance to constituency selection by Fianna Fáil Cumann is purely coincidental, I'm sure. St. Augustine set out the Church's stall in this regard when he said, "If you ever hear of anyone carrying on in that most filthy habit of dressing as a horse or a stag, punish him most severely".

The Dingle mummers who follow the wren on Stephen's Day are famous for their 'strawboy', guises which McDonagh tells us offer opportunities to grab women and girls in ways which would not be attempted on any other day of the year. This notion of 'licence' is nothing if not Saturnalian, and it finds its echoes across the water in the ceremonies associated with the crowning of the Lord of Misrule. Anyone interested in the farmer-spanking which this entails should head over to the wikipedia now.

Wren Boys

The wren is, of course, a fascinating and mutable symbol, not least of kingship and betrayal, and his hunting and killing once formed part of the Dingle and other 'wrans'. In a curious rite of aristocratic sympathy with regicide, Lord Ventry would give more money to a Wren (mumming group) with a dead bird nailed to a stick than to one without the requisite sacrifice.

Stephen McDonagh quotes Margaret Dean Smith's introduction to Violet Alford's The Hobby Horse and Other Animal Masks which avers that:

…such festivals and such disguising…pursued with a purpose and with a regard to propriety of seasons which, however vaguely understood or formulated by the participants, removes them from mere boisterous and uninhibited jollification or 'play' in the sense of voluntary activity. They are compulsive, purposive acts, and their purpose, however manifested in buffoonery, is the increase of virility in men and fertility in cattle and crops.

This rather condescending and snotty-nosed view of the plain people as puppets of the past is convincingly disdained by Henry Glassie in his seminal study of Antrim's Ballymone mummers, All Silver and No Brass (Brandon, 1983). While Glassie acknowledges the custom in former times of regicide and replacement with a younger, more vigorous leader "to encourage the new year to spring up potently green", he writes approvingly of the approach of the Squire of Thoor Ballylee:

Yeats, while connecting Irish rural beliefs with those of ancient and mediaeval people, did not formulate this interest into a theory and was amusingly critical of folklorists who, in an effort to be scientific, ignored the voice and pulse of the people during their search for the "primitive religion of mankind".

The subjects of Glassie's study inhabit a fragmented Northern Irish community in 1974 – a banner year for the Troubles – and their mumming serves not only to connect them to the past but to bind them to their neighbours on the other side of the sectarian divide. Dr. Freud might also be interested to note that as well as being accompanied by the hobby, the Ballymone mummers are led by Beelzebub who carries a large club and dripping pan.

The yuletide season ends with the feast of the Epiphany; the 'Women's Christmas' so charmingly observed in Cork and Kerry. It is marked in Northern Greece with the following tableau, conveyed to fústarers via Glassie from the journal of AJB Wace. It is an irresistible tale of rosy-cheeked children and the timeless Christmas innocence which annually brings us Krampus, Pére Fouettard, the Strawboys and the rest.

Our story involves groups of small boys who make the rounds of their neighbours' homes and seek admittance. If they are denied, they commit the usual delinquent pranks, but if they are permitted entry, they do something a whole lot worse. A semi-circle is formed in the middle of the house and a chorus sings charming songs of well-wishing to the audience. So far, so lovely.

As the darling little sopranos chant, a boy dressed as an Arab breaks from the group and makes untoward advances to a boy dressed as "the Bride". Another boy, "the Groom", is outraged and starts to quarrel with the Arab, who kills him. The anguished bride weeps and calls for "the Doctor" and a boy with a black hat and coat steps forward and administers to the deceased. The Groom rises from the dead and joins in a dance with his fellows. This occult play ends with a sexual pantomime by the Bride and Groom and they exit the house to the accompaniment of money, food, wine and, one presumes, slack jaws all round.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all.

December 26, 2005

16 responses to Caught in the Furze

  1. fústar said:

    Many thanks to Copernicus for his mighty Stephen’s Day effort.

  2. Kevin said:

    Yep, for a Stephen’s Day blog post, it’s lovely n’ long.

  3. copernicus said:

    Forged in the smithy of the Reading Room of the National Library; I couldn’t leave anything out and ended up going a bit mad.

    By the way, can anyone shed light on what Gerald of Wales meant by the word “embrace”?

  4. copernicus said:

    Nice Krampus pic fústar. It looks like a merry christmas for those brats.

  5. fústar said:

    Ho ho ho. They should have eaten their greens and washed behind their ears.

  6. The Mayor said:

    And the carcass of the beast left over from the feast
    May still be found haunting the kitchen

    And there’s life in it yet we may live to regret
    When the ones that we poisoned stop twitchin’

    There’ll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias
    Mixed up with that drink made from girders

    And it’s all we’ve got left as you draw your last breath
    And it’s nice for the kids as you’ve finally got rid of them…In the St Stephen’s Day Murders

    The Chieftains, Bells of Dublin…

    IMO, best Christmas song ever! I always want to poison my relatives during the holidays! lol

  7. copernicus said:

    Stephen’s Day child murder; typical christmas carry on if you ask me.

  8. Londoner said:

    Geraldus does seem to imply that the ‘embrace’ of the horse by the putative king was more than platonic- is it possible that the combination of shagging and eating a horse gives us our modern term to ‘Capail ate’?

    It is worth bearing in mind however that Geraldus had a particular agenda in relation to his accounts of Ireland, being chief cleric and propagandist attached to the Cambro-Norman invasion; as sanctioned by Adrian IV (Nicholas Breakespeare) to stamp out abuses in the Irish Church.

    He also seems to have been unusually preoccupied, like many a coloniser in many a place then and since, by an abomination of ‘creatures’ with mixed ancestry. Cartoonish/nightmarish examples of whose issue crop up with surprising regularity in his account. His History and Topography of Ireland mentions a whole lot more bestiality for instance than any number of Bill Bryson travel books combined.

    “Duvenaldus, the king of Limerick, had a woman that had a beard down to her waist. She had also a crest from her neck down along her spine, like a one- year-old foal. It was covered with hair. This woman in spite of these two enormities was, nevertheless, not hermaphrodite, and was in other respects sufficiently feminine. She followed the court wherever it went, provoking laughs as well as wonder. She followed neither fatherland nor nature in having a hairy spine; but in wearing her beard long, she was following the custom of her fatherland not of her nature.”

    ALSO explicit:

    “….in the neighborhood of Wicklow at the time of Maurice fitzGerald, an extraordinary man was seen – if indeed it be right to call him a man. He had all the parts of the human body except the extremities which were those of an ox. From the joinings of the hands with the arms and the feet with the legs, he had hooves the same as an ox. He had no hair on his head, but was disfigured with baldness front and back. Here and there he had a little down instead of hair. His eyes were huge and were like those of an ax both in color and in being round. His face was flat as far and his mouth. instead of a nose he had two holes to act as nostrils, but no protuberance. He could not speak at all; he could only low. He attended the Court Of Maurice for a long time. He came to dinner every day and, using his cleft hooves as hands, placed in his mouth whatever was given him to eat. The Irish natives of the place, because the youths of the castle often taunted them with begetting such beings on cows, secretly killed him in the end in envy and malice – a fate which he did not deserve.”
    “Ruaidri O’Connor, king of Connacht, had a tame white goat that was remarkable of its kind for the length of its coat and height of its horns. This goat had bestial intercourse with a certain woman to whom he was entrusted. The wretched woman, proving herself more a beast in accepting him than he did in acting, even submitting herself to his abuse…”

    And indeed in England:

    “Near Chester in Britain a cow that was partly a stag was born in our time from the intercourse of a stag with a cow. All the foreparts as far as the groin were bovine, but the thighs and the tail, the hind legs and the feet were clearly those of a stag, especially in quality and colour of hair. But since it was more of a cow than a wild animal it stayed with the herd.”

    Gathering ‘evidence’ that Irish society was operating outside the bounds of Western Christian decency was pretty much Gerald’s job. He happens to have been a Welsh-Norman nobleman with well established maternal roots in native Welsh society.

    Is the idea of a self hating priest obsessed with the stain of his own mixed ancestry an overly 20th century interpretation of the text? Probably but it makes a whole lot of sense if you ask me.

    Sorry that’s right, you didn’t. Ah Herr Freud you had something to add?

  9. copernicus said:

    Geraldus was last seen in the San Fernando Valley, Ca, working for the gonzo department of a large adult entertainment concern.

    I admit I found it suspicious that Geraldus presented his info second hand and was not entirely convinced of his motives, but my journalistic impulse was to give the rubes sensation, and how! Who wouldn’t do the same if he had a freak in a bath of murdered horse, I ask ya?

  10. Bugsy said:

    How charming!I am currently in France working in a casual post of Language assistant in two French junior high schools.I was asked one day by one of my work colleagues if I could help her son with a project on how different countries celebrate xmas,his assigned country being Ireland.I intend informing him of our quite particular tradition of the wren boys,but being from Kilkenny, it is something that I am familiar with but not an expert on. Your website made my trawling through horrific American websites about Irish “traditions” (diddly-eye,potato-potato)much more bearable. Thank you and fair play. (Mind you,I shall be leaving out some of the more juicier details. The student in question is about twelve!)

  11. fústar said:


    Can’t take the credit for this one, but it was indeed a fine post. The guest poster – ‘Copernicus’ – is all growed up now and has a blog of his own. He shakes his thing over at: The Midnight Court.

    Check it out.

  12. HEIDIhO said:

    HOW NEAT!!
    From a question about Boxing Day & St Stevans Day..I was led into a wealth of fascinating info. Enjoyed all the comments. What does Fustar mean/refer to?
    I’m Irish/Swiss-German & English (& who Knows what else. Fascinated by derivation of names thru-out history and land.

  13. fústar said:


    Glad you stumbled across the blog.

    Here’s a definition (from my “about” page):

    fústar: // n. v. busy, agitated behaviour.

    In Irish it is rendered ‘fústar’, while the anglicised spelling is usually given as ‘fooster’, ‘foosther’ etc.

  14. Pingback: Old-School Christmas - Hit & Run : Reason Magazine

  15. Pingback: Strawmen and superstition | Unpacking my 'bottom drawer' in Budapest

  16. Pingback: Swedish Christmas Goat in Gävle: Modern Yule Log? | Connective Visions