The Wrenboy procession on St Stephen’s Day has all but died out in most parts of Ireland.
Ireland marks Christmas in much the same way as many other nations around the world, but we have quite a few traditions and customs that are pretty specific to this island.
Christmas in Ireland lasts from Christmas Eve until the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January and it's on 24 December that one of the traditions marks the beginning of the festive season.
For example, after sunset on Christmas Eve a tall candle is placed on the sill of the largest window in the home and lit as a sign of welcome for St Mary and St Joseph.
The feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is marked on 26 December and in Ireland is often referred to as Lá Fhéile Stiofáin or Lá an Dreoilín or Wren Day. Traditionally, this is also a popular day for visiting family members and going to the theatre to see a pantomime
The name alludes to several legends including ones found in Irish mythology that link the life of Jesus to the wren bird. In a fading tradition in all but a few parts of Ireland, people dress up in old clothes and straw garments and travel from door to door carrying fake wrens during which those taking part sing, dance and play music.
Dependent on which region of Ireland you are in those taking part are called either “wrenboys” or mummers. Mummers carry on the tradition at the village of New Inn, Co Galway and Dingle, Co Kerry. In the North, the tradition is still often observed in Co Fermanagh.
The tradition has its roots in ancient Ireland when a real wren was killed and carried around in a holly bush tied to a long pole - these days fake birds are used.
The wren is one of the smallest birds in Ireland, but it has a very loud song and is sometimes called the “king of all birds.”
This is because of the legend of a little wren who rode on the top of an eagle's head and boasted he had “flown higher than an eagle.”
Wrens were hunted for many years throughout Europe in medieval times with Ireland no exception to that.
In most parts of the island, the tradition died out in the early 20th century and the rhyme often used during the procession was “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds. On 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.”
In past times, the captured wren was tied to the wrenboy leader's staff or a net would be put on a pitchfork. It would be sometimes cruelly kept alive, as the popular mummers' parade song states "A penny or tuppence would do it no harm.”
The song, of which there are many variations, asked for donations from the townspeople. One variation sung in Edmondstown, County Dublin ran as such: "If you haven't a penny a halfpenny will do. If you haven't a halfpenny, God bless you!”
Often the boys gave a feather from the bird to patrons for good luck. The money was used to host a dance or "Wren Ball" for the town on a night in January.
St Stephen, the first Christian martyr was stoned to death in Jerusalem in Ad 34.
Wrenboys would go from house to house in the countryside collecting money but in the towns the groups were more organised and there was often an element of faction-fighting. In both cases there would be a Wren Captain, usually wearing a cape and carrying a sword, musicians, strawboys and others dressed as old women or other things.
It is a day of wild revelry and people usually conceal their identities so they can play tricks on their friends.
This type of behaviour is typical of Celtic festivals as a sort of purge.
The band of young boys has expanded to include girls, and adults often join in. The money collected from the townspeople is now usually donated to a school or charity.
The wren celebration may have descended from Celtic mythology. Ultimately, the origin may be a Samhain or midwinter sacrifice or celebration, as Celtic mythology considered the wren a symbol of the past year. The European wren is known for its habit of singing even in mid-winter, and its name in the Netherlands, "winter king," reflects this. Celtic names of the wren- draouennig, drean, dreathan also suggest an association with druidic rituals.
In the Welsh version of the myth, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, a Celtic hero, wins his name by hitting or killing a wren. He strikes a wren "between the tendon and the bone of its leg", causing Arianrhod, his mother, to say "it is with a skillful hand that the fair-haired one has hit it".
At that Gwydion, his foster father, reveals himself, saying Lleu Llaw Gyffes; "the fair-haired one with the skillful hand" is his name now".
And, in the Isle of Man, the hunting of the wren is associated with an ancient enchantress or 'queen of the fairies' (or goddess) named 'Tehi Tegi' which translates to something like 'beautiful gatherer' in Brythonic. The Manx spoke Brythonic before they switched to Gaelic). Tehi Tegi was so beautiful that all the men of the Island followed her around in hope of marrying her, and neglected their homes and fields. Tehi Tegi led her suitors to the river and then drowned them. She was confronted, but turned into a wren and escaped. She was banished from the Island but returns once a year, when she is hunted.
The myth most commonly told in Ireland to explain the festival is that 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.
The tradition may also have been influenced by Scandinavian settlers during the Viking invasions of the 8th to 10th centuries though it is usually attributed to the "Christianising" of old pagan festivals by saints to ease the transition and promote conversion.
A depiction of the wrenboys taking part in the St Stephen’s Day procession.
Various associated legends exist, such as a wren being responsible for betraying Irish soldiers who fought the Viking invaders by beating its wings on their shields.
In 1955, Liam Clancy recorded "The Wran Song" ("The Wren Song"), which was sung in Ireland by wrenboys.
In 1972 Steeleye Span recorded "The King" on Please to See the King, which also reflects the tradition. They made another version, "The Cutty Wren", on their album Time. "Hunting the Wren" is on John Kirkpatrick's album Wassail!
The Chieftains made a collection of wrenboy tunes on The Bells of Dublin.
In the song, "The Boys of Barr na Sráide", which is based on a poem by Sigerson Clifford, the wren hunt is also prominent.
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