Saturday, December 26, 2015

Ireland's Wren Boys - Saint Stephen or Vikings betrayed by a chattering wren


The Irish used to celebrate the day after Christmas, St Stephens Day, by killing wrens

In Ireland, the day after Christmas once included hunting down a small bird & tying it to the top of a pole. That’s how the Irish celebrated St. Stephens Day, or Wren Day.  The name alludes to several legends linking episodes in the life of Jesus to the wren. People dress up in old clothes, wear straw hats & travel from door to door with fake wrens (previously real wrens were killed), while they dance, sing, & play music.  One myth said that the robin, that was suppose to represent the New Year, killed the wren which represented the Old Year during this time.




Apparently birds hold a special place in the ancient Irish imagination & in that mythology the tiny wren holds powerful sway. Some believe the word "dreoilín" (Gaelic for "wren") has its roots in the term "Druid's bird" which acted as as messenger between this world & the next.  In Irish folklore, the wren was viewed as the cleverest of birds, & hunting the wren is thought to have a stronger relationship to sacrificing a sacred symbol.

Limerick-born Gerald Griffin (1803-1840), novelist, poet and playwright wrote of 19C wren boys in a book published after his death of typhus in 1857, called The Half Sir published in Dublin by James Duffy.


"The Wren-boys of Shanagolden] … were all assembled pursuant to custom on the green before the chapel-door on a fine frosty morning, being the twenty-sixth of December, or Saint Stephen’s Day – a festival yet held in much reverence in Mumha [Griffin has Munster], although the Catholic Church has for many years ceased to look upon it as a holiday of “obligation.”

‘Seven or eight handsome young fellows, tricked out in ribbons of the gayest colours, white waistcoats and stockings, and furnished with musical instruments of various kinds – a fife, a piccolo, an old drum, a cracked fidde, and a set of bagpipes – assumed their place in the rear [Griffin has rere] of the procession, and startled the yet slumbering inhabitants of the neighbouring houses by a fearfully discordant prelude.


‘Behind those came the Wren-boy par excellence – a lad who bore in his hands a holly-bush, the leaves of which were interwoven with long streamers of red, yellow, blue and white ribbon; all which finery, nevertheless, in no way contributed to reconcile the little mottled tenant of the bower (a wren which was tied by the leg to one of the boughs) to his state of durance. After the Wren-boy came a promiscuous crowd of youngsters, of all ages under fifteen, composing just such a little ragged rabble as one observes attending the band of a marching regiment on its entrance into a country town, shouting, hallooing, laughing, and joining in apt chorus with the droning, shrilling, squeaking, and rattling of the musicians of the morn...


Around this space the procession formed, and the Wren-boy, elevating his bush, gave out the opening stave of the festive chant, in which the whole rout presently joined:

“The Wran! the Wran! the king of all birds,
St Stephen’s day was caught in the furze;
Although he’s little, his family’s great.
Get up, fair ladies! and give us a trate!
And if your trate be of the best,
In heaven we hope your soul will rest!”’ 


Daniel Maclise illustration for S.C. Hall’s Ireland Its Scenery and Character (1841)

The tradition of Hunting the Wren was celebrated on Dec 26th, when a wren was captured & thought to bring good luck for the new year. In modern times, the tradition of "hunting the wren" involves musicians roaming from house to house playing music on "St. Stephen's Day" and "passing the hat."


The killing of birds on Wren Day was reportedly done by young boys also called Mummers.  Originally, groups of small boys would hunt for a wren, and then chase the bird until they either have caught it or it died from exhaustion. The dead bird was tied to the top of a pole or holly bush, which was decorated with ribbons or colored paper.




Early in the morning of St. Stephen’s Day, the wren was carried from house to house by the boys, who wore straw masks or blackened their faces with burnt cork, and dressed in old clothes. At each house, the boys sing a Wren Boys’ song.


Typical lyrics are:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
 St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
 Although he was little his honour was great,
 Jump up me lads and give us a treat.
 As I was going to Killenaule,
 I met a wren upon the wall.
 Up with me wattle and knocked him down,
 And brought him in to Carrick Town.

Drooolin, Droolin, where’s your nest?

 Tis in the bush that I love best
 In the tree, the holly tree,
 Where all the boys do follow me.
 Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
 And give us a penny to bury the wren.
 I followed the wren three miles or more,
 Three miles or more three miles or more.
 I followed the wren three miles or more,
 At six o’clock in the morning.
 I have a little box under me arm,
 Under me arm under me arm.
 I have a little box under me arm,
 A penny or tuppence would do it no harm.
 Mrs. Clancy’s a very good woman,
 a very good woman, a very good woman,
 Mrs. Clancy’s a very good woman,
 She give us a penny to bury the wren.



Another explanation of this myth is that St. Stephen, hiding from his enemies in a bush, was betrayed by a chattering wren. The wren, like St. Stephen, should be hunted down and stoned to death. Another legend holds that during the Viking raids of the 700's, Irish soldiers were betrayed by a wren as they were sneaking up on a Viking camp in the dead of night. A wren began to eat breadcrumbs left on the head of a drum, and the rat-a-tat-tat of its beak woke the drummer, who sounded the alarm and woke the camp, leading to the defeat of the Irish soldiers and the continuing persecution of the wren.




The tradition of "hunting the wren" has continued virtually unbroken, at least in some parts of the country, for centuries. Men primarily, carrying tin whistles, accordions and the like, went from house to house playing simple tunes (due to the cold weather when stiff fingers can prevent the playing of more difficult pieces) and dressed in disguise. They often wore costumes of straw, but should not be confused with strawboys who often performed at wakes in times past.


The wren boys were often led by a 'hobby horse,' with a wooden head, with snapping jaws, placed on the shoulders of the 'leader.' Believed to have associations with the ancient god Lugh, the horse was thought to be of great importance in old Ireland, but like many of these old traditions, it's original meaning are often lost to us. That said, the antics of the hobby horse often made for great entertainment. They are most common in West Kerry where wrenboys and the tradition of Mummers plays and Mumming stayed very strong long after it had died out in many other parts of the country.




Today, no wrens are harmed in the name of Wren Day. In fact, the holiday is barely celebrated in most of Ireland. The town of Dingle has a parade.  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.


They wren boys often begin their festivities with this old song:

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 honor 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 Saint Stephenses Day,
 So up with the kettle and down with the pan!
 Give us some help for to bury the Wren!



Starting at noon and going on until the early hours of the following day, The Wren is a blaze of color and a lot of noise, thanks not only to the accompanying musicians’ fife and drums, but to the collection boxes the wren boys shake. Rather than paying for a dance for the whole town, today’s funds go to local charities.  Be warned. Innocent by-standers will often get swept into the parade or chased down side-streets.  No longer to wrens have to fear Wren Day, but it seems like if you’re in Dingle, you might.

The proceeds of the collection boxes traditionally was spent on a party called a ‘Join’.   Picking a house for the shindig, a barrel of porter was bought for the men and wine for the ladies.  Jam, currant cake, bread, sugar and lemonade was provided for everyone.  A 'great night of sport and fun, dancing and music' followed that lasted until morning.




At the very least, 'hunting the wren,' reflects the universal practice of dressing in costume or disguise and having an 'out of body' or 'out or everyday life' experience, in order to relieve the tensions and constraints of every day life.


Another Version of the Wren Song:

The Wran, the Wran the king of all birds,
 St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
 Although he is little, his honour is great,
 Put your hand in your pocket and give us a trate.
 Dreoilin, dreoilin where is your nest?
 Its in the bush that I love best,
 Behind the holly and ivy tree,
 Where all the birds shall follow me.
 As I was goin' down to Youghal,
 I saw a wran upon a wall,
 I up with my stick and I knocked him down,
 Then brought him back to Mitchelstown.
 Mister_______ is a very fine man,
 It was to him we brought the Wran,
 You'll have luck throughout the year
 If ya give us the price of a gallon o' beer.
 Raise up your glasses, your bottles and cans
 We toast your subscription to bury the Wran,
 Up with the kettle and down with the pot,
 Give us your money and let us be off!

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