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Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann

History, News

St. Stephen’s Day Wren Hat Competition!

December 26 is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. 

Legend has it that St. Stephen’s hiding place was betrayed by the chattering of a wren.For centuries, the feast day has been recalled in Ireland by the “Wren boys,” who dress in motley clothing, marching from house to house to collect money for a party for the whole town or village, and sometimes to support a charity. 

Traditionally, they exacted their vengeance on the unfortunate bird by carrying a wren aloft on a stick—hunted down in the old days, but for years (mercifully) a toy bird.

One way to celebrate the day is by creating a colorful wren hat. Shannon Lambert-Ryan, with help from her eager assistant Liam de Barra, show you how in this video, a special edition of their Baking with Babies series. (Hint: It’s not just for babies!)

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News, People

Remembering Muriel Prickitt

Irish dancers and musicians will have no trouble remembering Muriel Prickitt, who passed away at age 87 on June 7 at Samaritan Hospice in Voorhees, N.J ., following a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. She was simply everywhere and had a hand in virtually everything relating to Irish music and dance.

An exquisite set dancer and legendarily fast accordion player, this force of nature was known by all. She is mourned—and celebrated—by friends and relations almost past counting.

One of those who honors her memory is Gerry Buckley, of Ardagh in County Limerick, Ireland. Buckley was a founding member of the Delaware Valley chapter of Irish music, dance and cultural organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. In 1989, the newly wed Gerry and wife Fiona moved to Voorhees, N.J., where they met Muriel Prickitt through the set dance community.

“My wife was a set dancer before she moved over,” Buckley recalls. “She was looking for someplace where she could go set dancing, and she met Muriel and (Prickitt’s companion) Tom Quinn. I forget where they actually met, but they got to talking and Muriel mentioned that she was going for set dance lessons in Jenkintown. She said, ‘Why don’t you come along?’ and that was it.”

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Photo Essays, Photos

Photo Essay: The 20th Annual Wren Party

The 20th annual Wren Party, sponsored by the Philadelphia-Delaware Valley chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, is done and dusted.

CCÉ’s yearly event commemorates an ancient Irish custom, in which the humble wren is alleged to have given away the hiding place of St. Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr. In olden days, “wren boys” or “straw boys” would parade around their village, bearing the body of a hapless wren on a stick and begging contributions for a big village bash.

In this case, absolutely no wrens were harmed, of course. The only birds were fake.

Party-goers danced on into the night to tunes provided by a big Irish traditional band, Rosemarie Timoney’s dancers put on a lively exhibition, and there was a cute little wren parade, in which participants were awarded for the quality and inventiveness of their wren hats.

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Celebrate the Holidays at the 20th Annual Wren Party

We’re about to celebrate an Irish Christmas custom that has its roots in an unusual ritual going back centuries, and you’re invited.

It’s the feast of St. Stephen—December 26—and the Irish conferred upon this holy commemoration a distinctly unusual twist, which we’ll get to.

Sponsored by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann-Delaware Valley, the local chapter of a worldwide organization that celebrates traditional Irish music, dance, language and culture, the annual Wren Party begins at 7 p.m. the night after Christmas. It takes place at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 235 Limekiln Pike in Glenside, Montgomery County.

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Wren Party 2018

The Philadelphia-Delaware Valley chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (translation: Gathering of Musicians in Ireland) carried on a long tradition Wednesday night, holding its 19th annual Wren Party.

The event commemorates the Irish custom of the Wren Boys—ragtag bands of townsmen in motley attire who went door to door playing tunes, dancing and singing songs, all in hopes of collecting money for a community party or dance.

In the early days, they mounted a dead wren on a stick. December 26 is the feast of early Christian martyr St. Stephen, whose hiding place in a bush was given away by the chattering of a wren. Or so legend has it. Hence, the sacrifice of one of those small birds.

That grisly last part of the tradition faded away—thank goodness—a long time ago.

The local Comhaltas chapter commemorated the feast of St. Stephen with a big party at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Glenside, with lots of traditional Irish music, dance, holiday treats—and a wren hat parade.

We have pictures from the night’s merriment. Check them out.

Dance, Music

Come to the Wren Party!

Legend has it that it was the chattering of a wren who gave away St. Stephen’s hiding place in a bush, leading to his murder and martyrdom.

Fast forward several centuries to the Emerald Isle, where the so-called “wren boys” commemorated the feast day of St. Stephen—December 26—singing, playing music and dancing in exchange for applause and money to be collected for a party or dance for their village. They performed in colorful clothing and masks.

In the early days, they actually hunted for a wren, killed it and mounted it atop a stick. Thankfully, these days, the tradition continues, but with no avian casualties—a fake wren will do.

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Help Three Talented Kids Get to Ireland

Haley Richardson isn't shy about performing.

Haley Richardson isn't shy about performing.

Saturday probably won’t be much of a beach day. The weather man predicts thunderstorms.

Looking for a way to salvage the first half of your all-too-short weekend? Head on over to the MacSwiney Club in Jenkintown, slip into your dancing shoes and create a little thunder of your own.

The Irish music and culture group Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (just say COAL-tus for short, and you’ll be close enough) is going to pound out Irish tunes from 7 to 11 at its Summer Social Evening, and you can dance till your feet cry “uncle.” Best of all, your ten bucks will also help support three of CCE’s youngest and most talented members as they prepare to compete in the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil (music festival) in County Cavan in August.

CCE’s Cass Tinney, who is helping to organize the night of music, dance, food and fun, says two of the kids—fiddlers Haley Richardson and Alexander Weir—will be in North Carolina at a kind of fiddle camp as a tune-up for the Fleadh, so they won’t be able to attend. Haley won for solo fiddle and Alexander, for slow airs, in the 6- to 12-year-old group at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Fleadh in Pearl River, N.Y. However, harper Emily Safko—who won solo harp in the 6-12 group—will be there to pluck out some tunes.

“We usually have our social in the spring,” says Tinney. “But every date we picked out, something else came up. So we decided to do it in the summer, and then we thought: Why not do it for the kids?”

Why not, indeed. John Shields will be spinning the tunes (do we say “spin” anymore?) and presiding over the dancing. If John Shields can’t get you off your tush, no one can. CCE will also be providing snacks, but is asking folks to bring some of their own. You can also sidle up to the bar, or teetotal along with coffee and tea.

Tinney recognizes that a summer night can hold many other attractions. And lately, the weather has been challenging. But she hopes that people won’t pass up the opportunity to help out three nice kids.

“It can be a bad time of year,” she says. “It’s ungodly hot. People are on vacation. We’re just going to hold it and hope for the best.”

The MacSwiney Club is at Greenwood Avenue and Walnut Street in Jenkintown. Come and dance, Tinney says. Or sing, if you’ve a mind to. But by all means, come out and support the future of Irish music in the Delaware Valley.

News, People

Fly to the Wren Party

OK, so St. Stephen is hiding in a bush, trying to elude early Christian haters. Suddenly, a tiny wren alights on the bush and immediately begins making an enormous birdy racket. Thanks to the wren, the Christian haters figure out where St. Stephen is hiding. They yank him out from the bush and stone him to death.

Fast forward hundreds of years to the Emerald Isle. Every year, on the feast of St. Stephen (the day after Christmas), local guys track down and kill a wren and mount him on a stick, parading his poor carcass about town. The wren boys, they’re called, and you can tell they’re wren boys because they’re dressed in funny costumes, and they sing and they dance. They beg for drinks, food and spare change. This becomes a happy little tradition.

The idea of the wren boys still exists in Ireland, although—thankfully—no one slaughters little birds any more. And a variation on the legend lives on locally in a fun-filled and completely avian-free evening at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Limekiln Pike in Glenside.

It’s the 10th annual Wren Party, and it is sponsored by the Delaware Valley chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (translation: Gathering of Musicians in Ireland). Comhaltas (pronounced coal-tuss) is dedicated to the perpetuation of Irish music, dance and culture. It’s a party worthy of the Comhaltas mission, featuring live traditional Irish music, set and ceili dance—even a contest for best wren boy hat.

“We’re asking people to put together a hat and join our wren boys parade,” says Jackie Kelly, the local Comhaltas public relations officer who, with Cass Tinney, runs the post-Christmas event. “Every child who enters the parade gets a prize.”

The hat parade is just one of the many activities geared for children. There’s also a puppet show.

But at its core, the Wren Party is about music and dance. Well-known local musician Kevin McGillian and friends set a lively pace, and they do it all for free. There will also be a performance by Haley Richardson, a young New Jersey fiddler who at 6 years old placed first in the 12-and-under category at the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh Cheoil (music festival) at Pearl River, N.Y., last spring. She’ll knock your socks off.

If you love dance, you’ll stay on your feet most of the night. Wear comfy shoes.

And if you like to watch dance, you’ll get to do that, too, as the Timoney and Gibson schools put on a great exhibition.

“Its a nice night of fun and good craic,” says Kelly. “It’s our biggest event all year. We get a great turnout. People just love it. We first started at the MacSwiney Club in Jenkintown, but we outgrew it. The Knights of Columbus Hall is a much larger venue.”

For Kelly (nee Marano), it’s a great way to pass tradition along to the younger generation. “My last name is Kelly, but I’m a hundred percent Italian. But I’ve become totally immersed in this culture. I’ve been to Ireland 19 times. We keep the old tradition alive and that’s a good thing for young kids to see.”

The party starts on Saturday night, December 26, at 7 p.m. The Knights of Columbus Hall is at 235 Limekiln Pike in Glenside. It costs $10 per person. Bring a dessert, too.