When I first came to live in Limerick some 30 years ago, I was totally astonished to have dozens of musicians and dancers arriving into my house throughout St Stephen’s Day, 26 December. From about 10 am onwards, they arrived. The earliest were small groups of local children with their musical instruments, often as young as 5 or 6 years of age. The great cultural network of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, active across much of Ireland, ensures that there are musicians in abundance of all ages to take part in events. In parts of Ireland, St Stephen’s Day,or Lá Fhéile Stiofán in Irish, is known as ‘Lá an Dreoilín’, meaning the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day. Announcing their arrival by loudly playing the bodhran (an Irish drum) as they make their way towards the door, and with barely enough time to shut the startled dogs away, the door is opened wide and the musicians stream in. Dressed in old clothing, mostly in white, with assorted bits of tinsel, straw and holly attached to hats of all descriptions, they file in and proceed to entertain us with a few songs, some traditional airs expertly played on fiddles, bodhrans, accordions, tin whistles and flutes, and of course,Irish dancing. The entire performance lasts less than 10 minutes, and they play themselves out again, back into the(often very wet or sometimes snowing!) night! The last person to leave carries a bough of holly to which is attached some red and white streamers and an effigy of a dead bird, plus a bag or box for donations, singing as he goes
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 him a treat (pronounced ‘trait’)
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren (pronounced ‘wran’)
The tiny wren has been prominent in legend and folklore for centuries. The story of the election of the wren as of King of the Birds is to be found all over Europe, first mentioned by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C as being one of Aesop’s Fables from the 6th Century B.C. The story goes that the title King was earned in a contest between all birds to see who could fly the highest. The eagle managed to soar highest of all, but then the wren, having concealed itself in the Eagle’s feathers and ‘hitched a ride’ flew out and soared even higher. And so the wren became king. Irish versions of the tale go on to say that because of the deceitful manner in which the title was earned, the wren was placed under a ‘geis’ or taboo and this is why it is hunted.
In the 1940s the Irish Folklore Commission carried out a survey of the rituals of St Stephen’s Day across Ireland from which it is shown that the wren was usually hunted on Christmas Day. The dead bird was tied to a bush, usually holly, and on the following day was paraded by the Wren Boys (usually bachelors) from house to house as they sang the wren song. Money and food collected was then used to put on a wren dance some days later at which it was hoped that young unmarried people might meet and find a spouse.
Other stories of the killing of the wren are to do with its role in betrayal – whether betraying the Christian martyr, Stephen, or betraying Irish soldiers by alerting the enemy in the Viking invasions of the 8th century or by warning the Cromwellian army of the approaching Irish in the 17th century. Whatever the origins, the Wren Boy tradition has changed down the ages – the wren is no longer killed, and the custom of visiting each home has died out in many areas, musicians now go from pub to pub to entertain larger crowds, and money is often collected for charity.
The St Stephen’s Day procession is alive and well in parts of Ireland, most notably in Counties Kerry, Clare and Limerick as well as in some other areas.
Men, women and children of all ages now go on ‘The Wran’. In recent years the tradition was revived in the city of Dublin where troupes of musicians singers and dancers take to the streets to give traditional entertainment for the feast of Stephen. While it is no longer a ritual to ensure fertility and prosperity in the community for the year ahead, it adds a colourful and enjoyable diversion in the Christmas season.
This is an edited version of a post from 2011.
The Irish Wren Tales and Ritual. To Pay or Not to Pay the Debt of Nature, Sylvie Muller, Béaloideas pp131-169 1996/1997.