You might think St. Stephen's Day, December 26th, is a day to sleep in, maybe work of the excesses of the day before, hide from the mountains of Christmas wrapping paper, and avoid the remnants of the Christmas turkey.
Not so if you are in Dingle, County Kerry, a town visited by tourists in summer, but which recaptures its quiet, remote feeling in the winter months.
Here, the people wake early, and by 6 a.m. are on the streets in straw costumes and fancy dress, parading about waving banners to announce The Wren (pronounced "wran") Day. This is done to the accompaniment of lively Irish music, played by paraders with tin whistles and accordions. On Wren Day, no one sleeps late in Dingle town.
For many people in more distant exile, the 26th of December holds a special resonance – the day the whistles, fifes and drums thunder like waves, rising in crescendos to drive the dark of winter away. Pagans and Christians forgot, all the one now. "Up Sraid Eoin! We never died a winter yet," as they say on at least one street in Dingle town.
Wren Day, also known as Wren's Day, Day of the Wren, or Hunt the Wren Day they call it in Dingle Lá an Dreoilín, is celebrated on 26 December, Which is Saint Stephens day. The tradition consists of "hunting" a fake wren and putting it on top a decorated pole.
Then the crowds of strawboys, celebrate the wren pronounced wran by dressing up in masks, straw suits, and colourful motley clothing. They form music bands and parade through the Town Of Dingle, they are called wrenboys.
to legend, 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. This belief is shown is the song that begins:
"The wren, the wren, the King of All Birds, St. Stephen's Night got caught in the furze."
This also illustrates the tradition of hunting the wren on Christmas Day (St. Stephen's Eve/Night)
Mysteriously, the wren has a reputation for treachery.
A wren is said to have betrayed Irish soldiers fighting the Norsemen by beating
its wings on their shields. The wren, too, is blamed for betraying St. Stephen,
the first Christian martyr.
This is the usual explanation why the wren is the
hunted bird on St. Stephen's day. It has also been argued that the antipathy
shown towards the bird dates from early Christian opposition to the Druidic
rites that surrounded it.
Birds have great prominence in Irish mythology. They
were seen as intermediaries, in pre-Christian times, between this world and the
next. The flight patterns of birds, like the wren, were used as auguries by the
Druids. Indeed, some believe, the Gaelic word for wren – dreoilín – derives from two words, draoi
ean, or Druid bird.
Today, the wren – as a feature of the event – survives
only in the rhyme and in the name of the day, although, in former times, it was
hunted and nailed to a pole at the head of the procession.
The straw suits worn by the Wrenboys also have
historical resonances, though more recent ones. In the 18th and 19th centuries,
they were worn as disguises by the Whiteboys during Ireland's prolonged agrarian
The suit is woven in three parts: head, chest, and
skirt. The straw of choice for the suits is that which comes from oats and,
since there is little demand for oats, good straw is becoming increasingly
difficult to find. In many cases, oats are grown specifically for the Wren.
The Wren in Dingle, in common with many customs in
rural Ireland, came close to extinction. From the twenties and thirties onward
emigration took a great toll among those who would have taken part.
There was strong clerical opposition – the money raised
in the collections the Wrenboys took up went towards holding a ball in a local
hotel or public house and naturally there was alcohol involved. The Church saw
the Wren, as it saw the house dances that kept traditional music alive in those
times, as an "occasion of sin."
Dublin, too, has a festival, held on Sandymount Green.
Whatever its provenance (there is a similar festival in Lerwick on Shetland,
and its form finds echoes across Europe in the hobby horse, and the hunting of
a small bird on one day of the year) the Wren in Ireland is not fixed in time.
Like much else in Irish culture, the Wrenboys have
adapted and changed. Their masks and costumes reflect change, and reflect too,
perhaps, the current demonology of Irish society – long after her fall from
power, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher still figures
prominently in the masks worn in many a Wren in Ireland.
Fundamentally though, the Wren is a local event, reflecting the communities it springs from – whether in the North of the country, or Wexford, Woodford in Galway or the west of Kerry. The Kerry writer and dramatist, Sigerson Clifford, was all his life a kind of exile in his own country from the town he loved, Cahirciveen. He's best remembered for his great ballad, The Boys of Barr na Straide, two lines of which formed his epitaph.
I'll take my sleep in those green fields, the place my life began, Where the boys of Barr na Straide went hunting for the wren.
THE WREN SONG
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the firs
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