Each year as Christmas approaches the strains of street music (carol singers, minstrels, waits etc) are heard throughout Ireland and Britain. Many of the old traditions, which abounded at Christmas time are steeped in the mists of time, and are no longer found anywhere else. Today, many are forgotten, but there are a few still in living memory. One such custom still exists in Castlebar, namely that of “The Waits.” The origin of this custom is to be traced through eight centuries and it throws many insights into the manners and customs of the past. Childhood Memories of A Castlebar Christmas
Like many generations of Castlebar children I vividly remember waking with excitement to the sounds of music and greetings in the early hours of the morning in the days prior to Christmas. Generations of Castlebar children have waited anxiously to be called by their parents to see and hear the Waits on their rounds in the early hours of the morning. The sound of voices proclaiming:
“ Good morning Mr. and Mrs.XXXX and all the XXXX's at three o’ Clock on a cold and frosty morning. “ or “ Good morning Mr. and Mrs.XXXX and all the XXXX's at three o’ Clock on a cold and damp morning.”
This sound is one that is familiar to residents of the town as far back in time as even the oldest residents can recall.
This custom came to Castlebar, as it did to most garrison towns in the country, due to the existence of the British army in these towns. The Waits have in fact being continuing the tradition that has been practiced in the town since its foundation in the early 16th century and more especially since the town became a Garrison town in 1691. The practice was especially continued in Castlebar because of the influence of the Scottish regiments stationed in the town. Residents of the old Castlebar- have continued the custom: “The Auld Stock” – in recent years from Mc Hale Road and previously Lucan Street, New Antrim Street, Tucker Street also known as “The Lower End” - to the south west of the town river. Persons associated with the continuation of this tradition would have association with or their ancestry would descend from the British army presence in the town.
Currently Stephen Guthrie and Joe Geraghty continue this long established custom. Prior to this Stephen operated along with Dessie Dunne. Dessie Dunne along with Paddy Clarke had kept the custom alive since the 1940’s. A brother of Paddy Clarke was involved in the practice in the years before 1940. Among the instruments played by him was The Ivy Leaf. An older resident remembers a Charlie Watson who lived at Rock Square beneath the present Boxing Club, calling out the waits in the 1930’s.
The custom was also commonplace in Kilkenny, Cavan and Ballymahon, Co. Longford, in the early 20th century. In Connaught the tradition was carried out in Ballinrobe, Ballyhaunis, Carrick-on-Shannon, Westport and Swinford. As far as can be ascertained the only town in Ireland to retain the custom is Castlebar.
The practice is still carried in parts of Britain especially Norwich, York, Northants, Bath and parts of Scotland. In fact there has been a revival of medieval English music in recent years and several professional travelling bands of Waits (Waytes) now exists in various parts of England. The presence of town pipers and court pipers was also commonplace in Germany and several Mediterranean countries.
The origins of these customs go back over 800 years. The custom originated in medieval England and was commonplace throughout Britain in the 17th century. The Waits, in old British life were the Watchmen of a city. They patrolled the streets during the night and used a musical instrument to show they were at their duty and to mark the hours. The duties of the waits originally were many including medieval plays, royal visits, announcing the arrival of strangers, weddings and social functions. The waits in most towns were allowed a nominal wage and entitled to accept gratuities from private individuals for playing at weddings and other social functions.
The musical side of their work developed and they became good musicians playing a variety of instruments, forming a city band (sometimes with very colourful liveries and elaborate silver chains.) The Waits Livery was distinctive and highly coloured.
E.g. in Dublin (1596): Livery cloaks, to be blue or watchett color with the city cognizance, embroidered badge worn on sleeves.
The musical instruments of The Waits originally consisted of wind instruments called hautboy (Wayte Pipes) and later stringed instruments such as viola, bagpipes, drums, fife and accordion and the Ivy Leaf were introduced. It is clear that originally waits were night watchmen in palaces, castles, camps and walled towns: “ who piped watch upon a musical instrument at stated hours, whether for changing the guard or in case of alarm or merely to awaken certain persons at appointed hours by soft music at their chamber doors.”
From the beginning of the 18th century the practice of paying the waits was abolished. Due to the Municipal Reform Act 1835 (after the Napoleonic Wars) which established the police, dismissal of waits commonplace. The custom of playing in streets survived however in many places during Advent and Christmastime. The system of gratuities for such services continues up to the present day.
In Britain the custom was kept alive among country folk. Reference to the Waits in literature is included in the works of Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Hardy and the Bronte Sisters. Songs like “Under the Greenwood Tree” and “Greensleeves” survive from this era.
The continuation of the tradition in Castlebar is definitely influenced by the fact the town was a British Garrison Town with several Scottish Regiments residing here until the foundation of the Free State, hence the call of the Waits described above.
The Bardic tradition and that of the Wandering Minstrels influenced the continuation of the musical element of the practice. Survival of tradition was in fact due in no small way to the system of The Waits having an apprentice (similar to the Bards) - thus the custom was handed down from generation to generation. Donations requested since the practice of paying of fees to municipal waits discontinued 1835, but the practice of The Waits collecting gratuities continues up to the present day.
So if you are wakened during the early hours to the sound of accordion or the shout of greetings in the early hours of the morning in the days prior to Christmas do not be alarmed. It is probably Joe and Stephen continuing an old festive tradition of which all Castlebar people are proud. Long may it be continued!
Article by Brian Hoban, Local Historian Advanced Certificate in Marine and Countryside Guiding.©