The Wren Boys

TERESA MCCARTHY explains some of the traditions associated ‘with the Wren Boys and where they come from.

   ‘The wren, the wren, the king of

  all birds,

   St. Stephen’s Day got caught in the


   Up with the kettle and down with

  the pan,

   Give me some money to bury the


THE AGE old custom of Hunting the Wren has always been an integral part of St Stephen’s Day. The celebration of the day seem to have little relation to St.  Stephen himself, although there is an old tale that   recounts the chattering wren betraying St. Stephen to his enemies as he tries to hide from them in the bushes.

Some believe that the wren celebration has descended from Celtic mythology. The origin may be a Samhain or mid-winter sacrifice or celebration as Celtic mythology  considered the wren a symbol of the past year.

Celtic names of the wren - drean, dreathan - suggest an association with druidic rituals.

Other legends suggest the wren being responsible for betraying Irish soldiers who fought the Viking invaders, by beating its wings on their shields. This association with treachery is a possible reason why the bird was hunted by wren boys on St. Stephen’s Day.

The title ‘King of all Birds’ also comes from Celtic mythology. It is said that the birds had a contest to see who could fly the highest and the clever wren rested on the eagle’s back as it soared high in the, sky and   eventually flew higher when the eagle grew tired and so the wren was declared ‘King of all Birds’.

Back in the nineteen fifties and sixties, Wren Boys could be seen on the day from early morning until late at night. The children and young teenagers set out very early in the morning with their faces painted and suitably dressed to hide their identity, on their shoulder they carried a wren bush which was a holly bush gaily decorated with coloured red ribbons.

Traditionally a dead wren was carried tied to the wren bush, but this custom of killing the wren died out almost a century ago. They trudged On from house to house mile after mile chanting and singing

  “the wren the wren the king of all the birds.”

Their reward at the various houses usually consisted of one or two old Irish pennies which were big and heavy compared with today`s small coins and it took 240 of them to make a one pound note. At the end of the day if they had collected two pounds they would have covered many miles on foot.

The young men and women also set out dressed up as Wren Boys. They played musical instruments of which the bodhrán was always included. They usually had some mode of transport which enabled them to travel further afield.

They visited all the neighbouring towns and villages singing, dancing and playing music.

At the end of the day it was a thoroughly enjoyable occasion when the Wren Boys assembled at the public houses. They were welcomed with great applause. Plenty silver coins were thrown into the hat as it was passed around. The collected was usually donated to a local charity. The music song and dance continued till the early hours of the morning.

The tradition of hunting the wren is no longer as widespread and has died out completely in some parts of the country. It is sad to see so many of our old traditions gradually disappearing.

The Kerry writer Sigerson Clifford wrote the ballad “The Boys of Barr na Sraide”  two lines which formed his epitaph.

    “I`ll take my sleep in those green fields the place my life began, where the boys og Barr na Straide went hunting for the wren.



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