Kilkenny Christmas Custom

A Christmas custom of old Kilkenny

Edward J Law (2013)

The Kilkenny historian John Prim noted the continuation of the practice of calling the Christmas waits in 1853, but the custom appears to have ceased shortly after that. It ended with the death in December 1856 of John Burke, who had been an umbrella maker in the city. It was felt that the old custom of calling the Christmas Waits would die with him. He had succeeded Charley the Sweep, Charles O’Brien, who died in January 1844, a fellow of genuine wit and infinite jest, whose natural humour fitted him for the part he had played. Burke had been a poor substitute but with no likely successor, even of his poor standard, it was felt the time-honoured and curious custom would cease.
The Waits of the 16th and 17th centuries were civic musicians who were employed by towns, cities and guilds for a variety of occasions: processions, theatricals and banquets. However, the custom in the time of Charley the Sweep was much debased as recorded by another Kilkenny Historian, John Hogan.
Charley, who had been a sweep since 1775, was an intelligent and well-to-do man who had all the chimney-sweeping business of the city. He kept at least a dozen little black urchins who, armed each with a chimney scraper and soot brush, generally accompanied him as a bodyguard of retainers. The custom of the waits was undertaken every night for two weeks leading up to Christmas, when Charley and his troupe, with Blind Foley the piper, started from his house at St Rocks at midnight. Dressed in black, and all carrying lanterns, they must have been quite a sight as they made the round of their selected clients in the early hours of hard winter mornings.
Charley’s round included the houses of prosperous families in the city, and at each one, with the occupant’s attention gained by a blast from the piper, he would declaim the formula: “Good morrow, Mr. Egan, good morrow, Mrs. Egan, good morrow, all the young Egans, past 12 o’clock, a fine frosty morning.” This said the youngsters performed a type of dance in a style something approaching an Indian hornpipe, accompanied by a peculiar air on the bag-pipes.
Having completed the rounds by Christmas, the troupe then retraced the whole circuit on Stephen’s day, when by custom they were treated to a drink at each house and Charley received a fee of half-a-crown. One can well believe that the sweep, the piper and the young blacks were frequently carried home towards night, as they themselves were not able to carry their liquor. Whilst it might have been financially rewarding for Charley to do circuits of the town for two weeks on early winter mornings, one wonders if a day’s imbibing and subsequent drunkenness was sufficient satisfaction for the urchins.
The suggestion that there would be no-one to continue the tradition was wrong. Hardly was John Burke in his grave before James Kelly, a teacher, who was noted to have some infirmity of the extremities, though not of the mind, offered his services to the Mayor, feeling that the old customs should be preserved, whether ridiculous or not. However, the Mayor, William Lanigan, considered the practice a public nuisance which should have ended with Charley the Sweep, whose inimitable humour alone made it tolerable, and that it was not a fitting pursuit for a man of James Kelly’s calling. Kelly took the Mayor’s advice, withdrew his application and the custom went to its anticipated grave.
Wouldn’t it have been great if the city had had chroniclers of all the customs which have been lost.