The 26th of December is the feast day of St Stephen,often shorted to Stephens day or Stephens.. In Britain the 26th of December is commonly referred to as Boxing Day , as this was the day servants and tradesmen would traditionally received gifts known as a “Christmas box” from their masters, employers or customers. In Ireland the day was also known as Wren Day, in Irish Lá an Dreoilín. Other variants include Day of the Wren, or Hunt the Wren Day. This name comes from a very old tradition focused around a tiny bird called the wren.
Lá an Dreoilín/Wren Day
Lá an Dreoilín or Wren Day is a very old tradition and was once practised throughout most of Ireland up to the middle of the last century, with the exception of northern Ulster. The word wren was pronounced ‘wran’. Traditionally on Wren Day, groups of mostly boys and men called ‘The Wren Boys’ would dress up in old clothes and paint their faces. They then travelled from door to door singing, dancing and playing music demanding money to “bury the wren”. This process was called going on the ‘wran’.
In modern Ireland the tradition has faded out in most parts of the county but it is still carried on in pockets of the country especially in Co Kerry, in the Dingle peninsula and in parts of Co Limerick and Galway with people going from house to house.
Angela Gallagher of the Slivervoice blog provides the following description of the process
Heralding 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 Irish dancing. The entire performance lasts less than 10 minutes, and they play themselves out again, back into the night!
The modern wren tradition now also incorporates street parades. The straw boys often take part in the parades and other organised Wren Day events.
In Dingle the wren tradition also incorporates
A pantomime-type horse with a wooden head, snapping jaws and a body made from cloth stretched across a timber frame, it is worn on the shoulders of one of the members of the Wren – who whirls and capers at the head of the parade (Woods 1997).
The role of the Wren in Wren Day Traditions
Originally the ‘Wren boys’ carried a dead wren or wrens with them on their escapades. The wren is no longer part of modern celebrations which are a much more animal friendly affair.
Catching a wren was not an easy task. The wren was obtained the days or the day before the 26th. The wren boys would go out into the woods and bogs or search the thatched roofs of houses and any other places this poor little bird would live. They would hunt for and if found they would then kill the little bird. The following day the bird was paraded through the town or rural areas on top of a decorated pole or holly branch coloured in ribbons and coloured paper. What follows is a description of the wren hunt from Cork in 1840
For some weeks preceding Christmas, crowds of village boys may be seen peering into the hedges, in search of the “tiny wren”; and when one is discovered the whole assemble and give eager chase to, until they have slain, the little bird. In the hunt, the utmost excitement prevails; shouting, screeching, and rushing; all sorts of missiles are flung at the puny mark; and not unfrequently, they light upon the head of some less innocent being. From bush to bush, from hedge to hedge, is the wren pursued until bagged with as much pride and pleasure, as the cock of the woods by the more ambitious sportsman (Hall, 1841 23).
Ireland: its scenery, character etc.(Volume I) by Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall. London: Hall, Virtue & Co., 1843. Drawn by D. Maclise, engraved by Landells. (http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie)
The killing the bird has long died out and any reference to the killing of this tiny bird in a modern context is symbolic. Catching the wren was not easy task and if a wren could not be found people would improvise and there are 20th century accounts of toy birds and props being used instead of the live bird (Danaher 1972, 246).
The Schools Folklore Essays from Clogher in Co Mayo recorded in the 1930s, recalls a piece of turf dressed up with feathers being used as a substitute for the poor little wren
Going out in the Wren” is still practised: only young boys now go out in the wren but formerly grown men did the same.
Now the boys go in batches or singly. If they can manage to catch a wren they dress him up in ribbons, put him into a small box also arrayed in ribbons and bring him round with them. But if they can’t get a wren they stick feathers in a small ciarán of turf and this does instead. They disguise themselves -thats an essential part of the game. There is no particular sort of disguise. They go from house to house getting money in each house. Sometimes batches of boys from 16 to 20 years do the rounds. These have often tin whistles or sometimes melodeons or mouth organs (NFCS Clogher 0095: 80).
In another account from Co Wexford dating to 1867 the bird was tied to the bush alive. This was no less cruel the killing the bird, as the little wren was brought from house to house tided to the bush which was shook vigorously as described below in an excerpt from The banks of the Boro: A Chronicle of the County of Wexford by Patrick Kennedy
The professional artist used by some means to secure a live wren, and fasten it by a string to the twig of an ivy or holly bush, and enlivened by the strains of an ear-piercing fife, invade the quiet of strong farmer’s houses and dance and shout, and sing the well known legend…..Then hands were taken, and steps performed round the bouchal na druleen[wren boys], who capered away in his best style, shaking the bush ans the poor prisoner in unison. They generally succeeded in extracting drink or money.. In most buys under the age of 15 pity for the sufferings of the small animal is the exception (Kennedy 1867, 233-234).
This must have been very traumatic for the little bird. Thankfully the practice of using live or dead wrens has long died out.
So why did the poor little wren receive such harsh treatment? According to folklore the Wren was blamed for betraying the Christian martyr St. Stephen when he was in hiding by making noises, hence the reason for hunting the Wren on St. Stephen’s Day.
Wren Boys Athea Limerick 1946 National Museum of Irelandhttp://www.communityarchives.org.uk/content/organisation/our-irish-heritage
When the groups of wren boys travelled around from house to house, a poem was recited and a number of songs grew up around the tradition. In Halls account from Cork in 1840 (Ireland: its scenery, character etc.) the poem recited was as follows
The wran, the wran, the King of all birds,
St Stephen’s day was cot in the furze
Although he is little his family’s grate,
Put yer hand in yer pocket and give us a trate.
Sing holly, sing ivy- sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink it would drown melancholy
And if you dhraw it ov the best,
I hope in heaven yee sowl will rest,
But if you dhraw it ov the small
It won’t agree wid de wran boys at all
A similar poem was recorded in Drogheda Co Louth in the 1930’s. This poem was recited throughout the country in the 20th century with slight variations and is still recited today.
The wran the wran the King of all birds, St Stephen’s day was caught in the furzse.
Although he was small his family was great. Rise up landlady and give us a trate.
Up with the ketel and down with the pan.
A penny on a halfpenny to bury the Wran
(NFCS, Naomh Muire, Droichead Átha 0680: 219)
In all the poems the wren is called the King of all birds. A lovely Irish folk tale recalls how the wren became king of all birds
Many years ago all the birds gathered together and wanted to have a king. The birds were satisfied that the bird that would fly the highest was to be their king. All the birds flew up into the air and the eagle far above them looked down and shouted, “I am the king of all birds.” But the wren hopping out from beneath the eagle’s wing shouted “You are not the king yet” and he flew still higher. The eagle was too tired to follow him and the wren was the king. When the wren came down out of the air the birds said he was too small and they proposed to drown him. But no water was to be found so all the birds began to cry into a bowl. When the bowl was filled with tears the clumsy owl tripped over the bowl and spilt it. They had all their tears shed and had nothing to drown him and he is still the king of all birds (NFSC Raheenagh (B.), Volume 0493: 025).
Music was and still is a very important part of the wren tradition. The Wren Boys usually carried some musical instruments with them such as a tin whistles or “sometimes melodeons or mouth organs”. They would play music and often dance and amuse their audience ‘by quips, pranks and buffoonery’ (Danaher 1972, 249). I have included an RTE documentary on the Wren tradition in Mountcollins West Limerick which provides further insight into the process.
At the end of the day the wren was normally buried when all housed were visited. In Mountcollins Co Limerick it was lucky for the wren to be buried opposite a house. In other cases the wren was buried opposite a house that refused to give any food, drink or money to the wren boys, it was said no luck would enter the house for the next 12 months (Danaher 1972, 249).
The money that had been collected was either on the “wren” divided up between the group, this was the norm for groups of children. Adults would often use the money to buy food and drink to be consumed later at a ‘Wren Party’ or spent that night in a public house (Danaher 1972, 248, 250). In modern Ireland the money is often given to charity.
When night falls they go (the ) to a public house and spend the money (NFCS Denmore, Volume 0977: 135).
The tradition of hunting the wren seems to be very ancient and very similar traditions was also carried out in parts of Britain and France.
Hunting the Wren was also a central part of Christmas traditions on the Isle of Man. The following is an article by Howard Caine describes the traditions
This ritual hunting of the hapless bird would seem to have originally taken place on Christmas Day, when folk would head out in the early hours to hunt down and kill their prey, before bringing it back to the local church. It would then be plucked and buried with much ceremony and singing in Manx.
The feathers of the dead bird were considered lucky and were believed to have the power to protect fishermen from shipwreck, to say nothing of a more general protection against witchcraft.
Later, the custom seemed to migrate, (something the wrens no doubt wished they had picked up on) to St Stephen’s Day on 26 December. Young men would chase down the birds, beating them from bushes with long sticks and general carousing.
They would suspend their dead quarry on top of a pole decorated with ribbons and evergreen leaves – which would then be paraded around the houses where dancing and singing would take place – before the feathers were distributed and hopefully some form of financial contribution would be made to the performers.
In Wales the hunting of the wren occurred on the Twelfth Night of Christmas. Groups of men would go out Hunting the Wrenhe tiny bird would be caged in a wooden box and carried from door to door. Householders would pay for the privilege of peeping at the poor wren in the box. Songs about the wren were also sung below is a song from Pembrokshire
Joy, health, love and peace be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing concerning our King
Our King is well dressed in the silks of the best
In ribbons so rare no king can compare
We have travelled many miles over hedges and stiles
In search of our King unto you we bring…
Old Christmas is past Twelfth-tide is the last
And we bid you adieu – Great joy to the new
Below is a youtube video of a Welsh song about hunting the wren.
St Stephens Day in Wales was associated with Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare / Holy Mary) a horse skull covered in ribbons. The horse-figure was carried from door to door by wassail-singing groups during the Christmas season. The Welsh Museum blog provides the following description below. The Mari Lywd custom reminds me of the horse used by the wren boys in the Dingle area which I mentioned above.
This figure (which is, of course, represented in other countries) seems to have been once known all over southern Wales but during the present century relatively little has been seen of it outside of Glamorgan, where it is not yet completely extinct.
The attendant ritual began with the singing of traditional stanzas by the Mari Lwyd group at the door, soliciting both permission to sing and entry into the house, and issuing a challenge to a versifying contest.
Next followed the pwnco, the debate conducted to the same music in a combination of traditional and impromptu stanzas) between a member of the group and an opponent within the house. This usually amounted to heavy leg-pulling in which the contestants mocked each other’s singing, drunkenness, etc.
Victory in the debate would ensure admission into the house for the Mari Lwyd group, to partake of cakes and ale and perhaps collect a money gift as well. In at least some cases, after the end of the debate, the group would sing additional stanzas introducing its individual members and finally, after entertaining the occupants of the house, it would deliver a farewell song (https://museum.wales/articles/2014-06-14/Christmas-customs-The-Mari-Lwyd/).
I really enjoyed researching the Irish Wren tradition, and id love to find out more about the tradition outside of Ireland. Im also glad the little wrens of Ireland can sleep safely now.
Caine, H. 2005, ‘Hunting the Wren’,http://www.bbc.co.uk/isleofman/content/articles/2005/12/07/hunting_the_wren_feature.shtml
Danaher, K. 1972. The Year in Ireland. Irish Calendar Customs. Cork: Mercier Press.
Hall,C.S. & Hall, Mrs 1841. Ireland: its scenery, character.London : How and Parsons.
Kennedy, P. 1867. The banks of the Boro: A Chronicle of the County of Wexford. Dublin: M’Glashen & Gill.
Woods, P. 1997. ‘Hunting the Wren’https://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/home/culture-and-language/wren-s-day.html
NFCS Clogher 0095: 80.
NFCS Denmore, Volume 0977:135.
NFSC Raheenagh (B.), Ráthluirc (roll number 10814).
Other Wren Day related resources