We Write The Songs…


Wren Boys

…That Make Our Novels Sing.*

Or, if we don’t write ’em, at least, we ought to be talking about ’em.

That’s the theory in The Top 10 Ways to Write about Music, which explores the functions of music in best-sellers such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. Those functions involve beauty, authority, magic, humor, celebration, connection, memories, solution, care, and metaphor/simile.

Here are 3 more jobs I found music doing in Irish Firebrands:

Character Development

  1. He was getting up the nerve to ascend into the gloom, when he heard something he hadn’t expected to hear.
    Somebody began whistling.
    It was quite good whistling, too: the kind that sounded like a canary warbling. Then it became music, and Dillon recognised an aria from Handel’s Messiah.
    The whistler now started the Promenade from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This virtuosity was accompanied by the sound of water gurgling down a plughole. It was time to act.
  2. His accent was unlike any other she’d heard since her arrival – he had just barely enough brogue to polish his vowels and give even workaday words a captivating ‘come hither’ lilt.
  3. She opened a hymnal and hurriedly flipped to the music. Her voice had recently changed, so she was trying to learn the alto line, but she was so worried about her housing dilemma – and still so rattled by the recollection of Dillon Carroll’s accent – that she gave up trying to follow the notes, and just sang the soprano line an octave lower.
  4. She carried the buckets downstairs to the pump, where she began whistling in time with the strokes of the handle.
  5. Now Lana noticed that Dillon’s musical voice no longer accompanied her thoughts, and she turned to look at him. He sat tilted back in his chair, rocking it ever so slightly with a faint, rhythmic creak.
  6. The vocalist sang without tremolo, but he ornamented the high notes with touching trills. Despite the unknown tongue, the yearning in the words brought tears to Lana’s eyes.
  7. Lana took a seat at the island and accepted the proffered saucer of lemon wedges. “What other beans did he spill about me?”
    Paula set mug, spoon and serviette before her. “Only that you love chocolate – you hate harpsichords – you like your steak rare and your hot dogs burnt – your favourite colour’s blue – you whistle better than he does – and your hands get cold, but your nose stays warm.”
  8. Working in the soil had always been therapeutic for Lana, and as she pulverised the peat and mixed it with earth from the hole, she contemplated the centuries that had passed while people had cultivated Drumcarroll, culminating with Mamó, Mo, and herself. She began to whistle the tune to a favourite hymn … and then she detected an evocative aroma–
    “I can’t see you, Dillon – but I can smell you!”
    A moment later, he peered round the corner of the house; then he strolled across the garden and sat down on the stoop with a pipe in his hand. It was the meerschaum with the bowl that was carved into a Celtic knot of snakes.
    She decided to take a ‘business as usual’ approach and see what he made of it. “So, what brings you here, today?” She scraped the loose earth into a pile with the side of her trowel.
    “I brought up a load of turf from the bog and built a rick beside the sean tigh.” He paused, and then said softly, “I liked hearing your whistling, again.”
    That caught her off guard – she’d never thought he’d even noticed that she whistled. It wasn’t exactly a plea to let bygones be bygones, but when she glanced at him, she supposed that was what his plaintive puppy look meant. She couldn’t think how to reply, so she smiled briefly. “Thanks.”
    He relaxed. “I didn’t know that you knew any Irish ballads.”
    “I don’t – that was a hymn.” She upended the pot, pulled out the plant and examined its roots.
    “A hymn? ‘Star of the County Down’ is a hundred years old. The tune, alone, goes back three centuries.”
    “Does it? My hymnbook says it’s an English melody.” The rose was quite pot-bound.
    He snorted. “That figures. But an Irishman wrote the words.”
    “How does it go?” She used the secateurs to open and trim the clump of roots.
    He shrugged. “It’s the usual treacle, about a lad who’s mooning over a bird.”
    She turned on him the maximum beguilement she could command from her gaze. “I’d like to hear it.” She added a playful pout. “You eavesdropped on me, so turnabout’s fair play.”
    Her coquetry had the expected effect, for a shy smile set his face alight. “Well – okay.”


Lana was still trying to fit the perishables into the little fridge when Dillon entered the kitchen.
“It’s a cold one out there tonight,” he said. He opened the stove door, stirred up the fire and then laid a chunk of apple wood on it. “I’d no idea that church-going could be so much fun.”
“Ward socials are like that. It’s part of the pioneer tradition.”
“I’d have thought that pioneers wouldn’t have had time for that.”
“Brigham Young knew they needed to make the time. Pioneer life was rough – and often terribly sad. He knew that people needed high-quality recreation to stay sane in spite of all that hardship, so he had them organise evenings of entertainment when they crossed the plains. It helped them cope and inspired them to carry on.”
“Was he Irish?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Sounds like what poor people were doing in the Gaeltachts, a hundred years ago. Sometimes music was all they could call their own.”
“I guess that’s how music therapy works.”

Music in the Setting

Irish Firebrands benefits from its being set in a culture that revels in its musical heritage.

  1. Frank cocked an eyebrow in disbelief. “You mean to say you’ve been in Ireland all this time, and you’ve not been on a musical pub crawl in Dublin?”
  2. They left the restaurant just in time to join a flock of jolly tourists led by two musicians, who escorted them across the River Liffey to a private room above a bar. There, entertained by sweet music larded with salty humour, Lana learned how to tell the difference between jigs, reels and hornpipes. Later, when the group returned to Temple Bar, a pair of dancers joined the musicians in another upstairs room, where they demonstrated steps that Lana gamely tried, to the cheers of the artists and the applause of Frank and their tourist companions.
  3. The session crashed to a close with triumphant hoots from the musicians and uproarious cheers from the patrons.
  4. She followed him out to the car. “I had a great time, Frank.”
    “What? Watching me get paralytic in Temple Bar all night, last night – and then wading through cow shite with me all day, today?”
    “I learned about music, and I learned about milk – two of my favourite things. It was worth every minute.”
  5. While they waited for the music to begin, Frank explained the Irish terms on the programme, and the course of the competition. There would be performances by individuals – singers and dancers and instrumentalists of all types – and by groups of dancers and ensembles of different instruments, some of whom would perform like pub sessions and others, called ‘ceilidhe bands’, who would accompany ‘ceilidhe dancers’.
    When lunchtime came, Lana persuaded Frank to order from a chipper, and they ate alfresco. The festival seemed to have spilled out into the footpaths, with buskers and session groups on corners and in front of shops and pubs, and on the town’s green square.
    After lunch, the dancers took the stage. Frank explained the different kinds of dancing. Ceilidhe dancers performed in groups of four couples. Set dancers did rigidly postured dances and performed as singles or couples or in a chorus line. Seannós dancers also performed alone or in pairs, or with a push broom for a partner, in a gymnastic performance called a ‘brush dance.’
  6. Musicians now occupied the row of chairs. Colm opened the ceilidhe with a fanfare that led into a stirring number that showcased his flying fingers. Solo and group musical numbers followed, and then Bishop Morton and three other men cleared a space at the centre of the floor. Their wives joined them and the four couples performed an energetic ceilidhe dance number. They were followed by two elaborately coiffed young girls in stiff frocks adorned with intricate and colourful appliqués, who performed a set dance on the sean tigh door.
    The dancers exited the improvised stage to approving applause. The musicians followed them, except for John Sweeney, who slid his ‘bones’ into a pocket and adjusted his microphone for singing. Then Medb announced, “Everybody get out their programmes and get ready to sing, Séarlas Óg.”
    Lana looked at the paper. The song was printed in Gaeilge, with an English interpretation by Medb. “I can’t sing that! I’ll have to sing the translation.”
    Frank said, “We just sing the chorus. It’s really only two lines.” He winked. “Good practice for your pronunciation.”
    The rustle of papers subsided, and then John sang, seannós….
  7. Here’s a complete episode, from Chapter 26:

Back at Boyne Fields, Lana was about to inquire about plans for lunch when she heard vehicle doors slamming, outside in the front garden.

“Ah! The wren boys!” Frank retrieved a jar of coins from his desk, and then he opened the door.

His nephews were crowded together below the stoop. Their faces were blackened with soot. Some wore straw headdresses and straw skirts over their clothes, and others wore patchwork rag costumes. One brandished a blackthorn staff with an artificial bird attached to one end. When Frank stepped outside, they sang:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St Stephen’s Day got caught in the furze.
It’s up with the kettle and down with the pan,
So give us a euro to bury the wren.

The boy with the blackthorn beat time like a drum major with his baton.

Little bird, little bird, where is your nest?
Tis in the bush that I love best.

’Tis in the tree, the holly tree,
Where all the boys do follow me.

The blackthorn waved wildly, and the bird fell off. Several boys dived to retrieve and reattach it.

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

The crowd shoved one boy forward. He bore a biscuit tin.

Conn has a little box under his arm,
Under his arm, under his arm.
Conn has a little box under his arm,
A euro or two will do it no harm.

“A euro to bury the wren, Uncle Frank?”

“A euro? When I was a boy, it was a penny!”

“Funerals are more dear, now,” Paula said. She stood to one side, surrounded by daughters and nieces.

“Well, let’s see – how many are you, this year?”

They counted off, and at the end, somebody shrieked, “Don’t forget Fergal!”

“But Fergal’s a baby!”

“He’s still a lad!”

“Okay! But he gets a two-euro piece, and you’d better not spend it! Give it to his mam, to keep for him.” Frank drew Lana to his side. “Here, Love, you do it.”

The lads took turns holding the tin while she doled out the coins. The littlest one asked, “Are you our Aunt, now?”

“Aengus!” Paula hissed.

“No, I’m just Lana.”

The boys shouted another verse of the song:

Uncle Frank’s Lana’s a very good woman,
A very good woman, a very good woman.
Uncle Frank’s Lana’s a very good woman,
She gave us a euro to bury the wren.

Then they stampeded away, tossing the wren to one another, and whooping and rattling the tin.

Lana asked, “Where are they going?”

“They’re off to bury the wren,” Frank said. “Then they’ll divide the spoils.”

I didn’t write any original songs, but I did reinterpret some Irish traditional pieces, and I re-translated one song from the German.

In two previous posts on this topic, we examined about one-third of the 90-plus references to hearing music in Irish Firebrands. We move on to other musical (and some not-so-harmonious) sounds….

©2012 by Christine Plouvier

* with apologies to Bruce Johnston


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