The traditions on the 26th of December in Ireland have not largely carried over to most sectors of the worldwide Irish diaspora.  Known as St. Stephen's Day or Wren Day in Ireland, this is a brief crash course on the traditions of this day for those outside Ireland who are unfamiliar with them.

Lá Fhéile Stiofán (St. Stephen's Day) is a day anticipated almost to the level of Christmas Day in Ireland.  Today, people will be dressing up in old clothes, wearing straw hats and travelling from door to door with fake wrens (previously real wrens were killed) and they dance, sing and play music. Although this tradition is less common than it was a couple of generations ago, it remains a strong tradition in certain parts of the country -- particularly on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry.

Depending on which region of the country, these door-to-door travellers are called wrenboys and mummers. A Mummer's Festival is held at this time every year in the village of New Inn, County Galway and Dingle in County Kerry.

A popular rhyme, known to many Irish children and sung at each house visited by the mummers goes as follows (this version popularized by the Irish group The Clancy Brothers):

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze
Although he was little, his honor was great
Jump up me lads and give us a treat

We followed the wren three miles or more
Three miles of more, three miles or more
Through hedges and ditches and heaps of snow
At six o'clock in the morning

Rolley, Rolley, where is your nest?
It's in the bush that I love best
It's in the bush, the holly tree
Where all the boys do follow me

As I went out to hunt and all
I met a wren upon the wall
Up with me wattle and gave him a fall
And brought him here to show you all

I have a little box under me arm
A tuppence or penny will do it no harm
For we are the boys who came your way
To bring in the wren on St. Stephen's Day



Additionally, a song that has gained in popularity over the years with a St. Stephen's Day / Wren Day theme is a song entitled The Boys of Barr na Sráide.  Taken from a poem written by Irish poet Sigerson Clifford (1913–1985), it is named after a street (Irish: Barr na Sráide, meaning "top of the street") in Cahersiveen in County Kerry, Ireland.

The poem recalls the life of the author's boyhood friends starting from when they were young children through to the Black and Tan period, and up to Civil War.  Here are two much-loved versions of the song:


* EDIT: Less than an hour after posting this primer, one of our friends nearby brought by a real, live wren they had caught this morning.  It's rare to have someone bring a live wren by these days ... they're typically fake.  Thankfully, the tradition of killing the poor birds seems to have gone by the wayside.  Our friends placed their wren in a jar complete with air holes and a bit of porridge to eat while in captivity.  The little fella will be released back into the wild immediately after his tour of our village has been completed.  Here's a couple photos I snapped of the cute little guy:

Related Reading:

The Wrenboys

Views: 5020

Tags: Dance, Drama, Faith, Folklore, Music, On This Day, Preservation, St. Stephen's Day, Traditional Music

Comment by Jim Roark on December 27, 2013 at 12:22pm

Thanks for the insights into another well-known Irish tradition.  Are the wrens common throughout Ireland?  It appears to be much smaller than what I would have expected.

Comment by Bernie Joyce on December 27, 2013 at 7:55pm

I always have to have at least 30 euros of change for St.Stephen's Day. It is a very popular tradition in my area.  We start getting knocks on the door from 9 o'clock up until around 7pm. Live wrens are used but from mid-day onwards most set them free in the area they were found and is subsituted with a piece of holly. I use to take my own son around until he went to secondary school, which is the norm. Some adults dress up and play music in the pubs and collect money for charity. St. Stephen's day is a time for fun and everyone relaxes from the mad rush of xmas, that is unless you fancy hitting the sales.

Comment by mary mc ginnis on December 29, 2013 at 8:23am

I never knew this. Thank you. And all the best for 2014

Comment by Kevin Meyers on December 26, 2014 at 9:15am
I was born in Philadelphia and there is a New Years Day tradition of the Mummers Parade. I wonder if the roots stem from the feast of St. Stephen?
Comment by Cathal McCarthy on December 26, 2014 at 6:32pm

There’s an old Irish adage that (seanfhocal) goes

Bíonn dhá insint ar scéal agus dhá leagan déag ar amhrán.

(A story has two versions and a song twelve.)

Making allowances for this, there are a few items in the version of the rhyme which deserve comment:

Line 2: St Stephen’s Day was caught in the FIRS. This should read FURZE, the name by which gorse is known in Ireland.

Third Verse: Rolley, Rolley... This is a corruption of the Irish word DREOLÍN which is the word for WREN,               

Comment by Erin M O'Neill on January 1, 2015 at 11:54am

What a fun tradition!  I knew of St. Stephen's Day, but never knew it's history.  Thanks for sharing and a Happy and Healthy 2015!!


You need to be a member of The Wild Geese to add comments!

Join The Wild Geese

The Wild Geese Shop

Get your Wild Geese merch here ... shirts, hats, sweatshirts, mugs, and more at The Wild Geese Shop.

Irish Heritage Partnership

Start a Business Today!

Adobe Express:
What will you create today?


Extend your reach with The Wild Geese Irish Heritage Partnership.

Congrats to Our Winners

© 2024   Created by Gerry Regan.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Service