The tradition is very much on the wane now but in some few localities Wrenboys still go out in Ireland on St. Stephens Day. The central theme of the wrenboy visit is the wren, an effigy of which is carried about in a holly branch or in a box or cage. Previously it was hunted and killed prior to St. Stephen’s Day and a matter of honour for groups to have a real bird.
Why, of all birds, is the inoffensive little wren chosen as the martyr for display by groups who take their name from it? Because of its treachery, some claim. When the Irish forces were about to catch Cromwell’s troops by surprise, a wren perched on one of the soldiers drums made a noise that woke the sleeping sentries just in time, thereby saving the camp.
Another explanation is that it ‘betrayed St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, by flapping its wings to attract his pursuers when he was hiding’. More say the hostility towards this most harmless of creatures results from the efforts of clerics in the middle ages to undermine vestiges of druidic reverence and practices regarding the bird. Medieval texts interpret the etymology of wren, the Irish for which is dreolín, as derived from ‘dreán’ or ‘draoi éan’ the translation of which is ‘druid bird’.
One of the most interesting legends is that Cliona, a woman of the otherworld, seduced young men to follow her to the seashore. Here they drowned in the ocean into which she enticed them. Eventually a charm was discovered that, not only protected against her wiles, but could also bring about her destruction. Her only method of escape was to turn herself into a wren. As a punishment for her crimes she was forced to take the shape of the little bird on every succeeding Christmas Day and fated to die by human hand. Hence the seemingly barbarous practice of hunting the wren.
Long ago bands of youths knocked ditches and scoured hedges in order to capture and kill the bird to have it for display. ‘The Boys of Barr na Sráide’ immortalises in ballad the young men ‘who roamed about with cudgels stout, a-searching for the wran’. Pursuit of the bird persisted, with the Wrenboys of Co Kildare, into the early years of the 20th century. Accounts relate that for a day or two previous to the holiday it was, ‘hunted and knocked over with stick or stone. Two or three of them are tied to a branch torn from a holly bush, which is decorated with coloured ribbons. On St. Stephen’s Day, small parties of young boys carry one of these bushes about the country, and visit the houses along the road soliciting coin or eatables. At each house they come to they repeat a version of a ‘song’ which varies in different localities. All versions seem disjointed and in no way refer to St. Stephen’s Day nor to the object of killing the wren.’ Eventually, at the end of the festivities, each wren is buried with a penny.
The Wrenboys rhyme, which was recited before the collection, varied from place to place but was generally a variation of:
‘The Wren, The Wren’
The Wren, the Wren the king of all birds,
St. Stephenses day, he was caught in the furze.
Although he is little, his honour is great,
Rise up, kind sir, and give us a trate.
We followed this Wren ten miles or more
Through hedges and ditches and heaps of snow,
We up with our wattles and gave him a fall
And brought him here to show you all.
For we are the boys that came your way
To bury the Wren on St. Stephenses Day,
So up with the kettle and down with the pan!
Give us some help for to bury the Wren!
Over time, the tradition became associated with ‘mumming’ (another tradition involving disguise using costumes made of straw). The town of Dingle holds a parade each year:
Come Wren’s Day, thousands of spectators line the streets of Dingle to watch this spectacle of men, dressed in rigs and brightly colored costumes, take over the town. Starting at noon and going on until the early hours of the following day, The Wran is a blaze of colour and a lot of noise, thanks not only to the accompanying musicians’ fife and drums, but to the collection boxes the wran boys shake. Rather than paying for a dance for the whole town, today’s funds go to local charities.
Photo: Wrenboys on St. Stephen’s Day in Dingle, Co Kerry