“The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
on Stephen's day was caught in the furze.
His body is little but his family is sweet
so rise up landlady and give us a treat.
And if your treat be of the best
your soul in heaven can then find its rest.
And if your treat be much too small
it will not please the wranboys at all.
A glass of fine whiskey and a bottle of beer
Merry Christmas to you and a happy New Year.
So up with the kettle and down with the pan
and give us a penny to bury the wran.”
In Ireland in times long past, a small brown songbird called a wren, was hunted by groups of young men known as ‘wrenboys’. The hunt took place at dawn on St. Stephens’ day, December 26th, also known as ‘boxing’ day in the British Isles. The young men dressed in old clothes and straw hats and wearing colorful masks, they went from door to door singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. The wren (pronounced ‘wran’ in Ireland) was tied to a long staff carried by the leader of the group. The ‘wran’ song would then be sung and a hat or small, decorated wooden box would be presented to the homeowner. The object of the exercise was to collect enough money to have a pre-arranged ‘join’ or party at the home of one of the group. The proceeds of the nights’ festivities would usually be spent on a barrel of beer, bread, currant cake and wine for the ladies. A great night of sporting, singing and dancing would follow and last until dawn.
In some parts of Ireland, children go from door to door with a wren (a small bird) in a cage or a model wren on a stick. They may also sing, play music or perform traditional dances. In some areas, boys may dress as girls or women. Many hope to collect money for community or school projects or charity.
There is much speculation about the origin of this somewhat peculiar practice. One story tells of ‘Cliona the seductress’ a woman of the otherworld. It is said that she seduced young men to follow her to the seashore. After enticing them into the ocean she drowned them. Eventually, a magical charm was discovered which would protect young men from her wiles and could bring about her demise. As punishment for her many bad deeds, she was forced to become a wren every Christmas Day and die by human hand on ‘wren day.’
In Christian belief, the myth most commonly told in Ireland to explain the festival is as follows; God wished to know who was the king of all birds so he set a challenge. The bird who flew highest and furthest would win. The birds all began together but they dropped out one by one until none were left but the great eagle. The eagle eventually grew tired and began to drop lower in the sky. At this point, the treacherous wren emerged from beneath the eagle's wing to soar higher and further than all the others.
Many people generally spend the day quietly with family members or close friends. Some Christians attend special church services to remember the Christian martyr, St Stephen's life. Other people may visit a theater to see a pantomime. Pantomimes are musical-comedy productions based on fairy tales and aimed at families. They incorporate audience participation, cross-dressing, double entendre and references to recent local events. Banks, post offices and many other businesses and organizations are closed on St Stephen's Day. However, stores and pubs are generally open, although they may open later and close earlier than usual. Public transport service schedules vary depending on where one lives and intends to travel. If a public holiday in Ireland falls on a Saturday or Sunday, many people get the following Monday off, although this is not guaranteed by law. Employers may also opt for alternative ways of compensating their workers, such as granting a paid day off within one month of the public holiday, an extra day of annual leave, or an additional day's pay.
St Stephen is believed to be the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death sometime around the year 33 CE. According to an Irish legend, he was betrayed by a wren while hiding from his enemies. Another legend tells of Viking raids on Ireland on St Stephen's Day sometime around the year 750 CE. Irish soldiers were approaching a Viking camp to drive out the intruders. However, a wren started eating crumbs from a drum and alerted the Vikings to the presence of the Irish soldiers. Hence, some people felt that wrens betrayed them and should be stoned to death, just as St Stephen was. Boys traditionally hunted a wren and threw stones at it. They tied it to a stick when it was dead and paraded it around the village. They did this to collect money for a dance or party for the whole village. Although the custom of killing wrens on December 26 died out around 1900, St Stephen's Day is still known as the Day of the Wren, particularly in rural areas.
Another tale tells of the betrayal of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, by a wren flapping its’ wings to reveal his hiding place to his pursuers. This telling may be an attempt by clerics in the middle ages, to discredit the reverence of the wren by the druidic belief system. In the Irish language the word for wren is ‘dreolin’ which is derived from ‘draoi ean’ and translated as ‘druid bird.’
Another legendary account from the 17th century tells of an incident involving Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell and his ‘New Model Army’ had invaded Ireland in 1649 with the express intent of eradicating Catholicism. An Irish Catholic army had taken part in a rebellion in 1641 and continued to pose a threat to the English crown. This rebellion, although intended to be bloodless, was marked by massacres of English and Scottish Protestant settlers by an army made up of Irish, old English, and Highland Scot Catholics in Ireland. The settlers had been given lands seized from former, native Catholic owners to make way for the non-native Protestants. These factors contributed to the brutality of the Cromwell military campaign in Ireland. Once, when the Irish army were about to launch a surprise attack on Cromwell’s forces, it is said that a wren perched on one of the soldier’s drums and made enough noise to awaken the sentries and thereby foiled the plans The wren was seen as the symbol of a traitor from then on.
The hunting of the wren was popular in other countries also, including France, England and the Isle of Man. Different verses of songs would be used depending on the country where it was being practiced. Oddly enough this practice was never adopted in Scotland. In all of the areas where it was practiced it was considered unlucky to injure a wren at any other time of the year or disturb its nest.Finally, at the end of the festivities the wren was ceremoniously buried with a penny.
Watch and listen to the Wren at this link: http://youtu.be/W8wjCGQhhRI
© John A. Brennan 2021. All Rights Reserved.