Hunting the Wren
I think it is a pity that locally the tradition of hunting the wren on St Stephen’s day (Lá an Dreoilín) is grinding to a slow halt. That was such a great day for so many years but I don’t think the culture and lifestyle of today’s world is conducive to that old tradition of dressing up in worn and torn clothes with painted and blackened faces to sing and play from house to house and pub to pub and collect a little money along the way. Mind you, we have continued to have two to three sets of wren boys every year to date and in 2014 when we thought we would have none – lo and behold two sets turned up in the dark of the night and we welcomed them with open arms! The special days of Christmas back through the years probably to the middle of the 80s encompassed the magical anticipation that was Christmas Eve, the very special Christmas day with its gifts and lovely food and then there was St Stephen’s day when we awoke again to another day full of expectation, this time because of the imminent arrival of several bands of wren boys bringing music, song and laughter into one of the darkest days of winter.
On Christmas day conversations would take place about the potential weather conditions for St Stephen’s day and of the possibility that forecasted rain, snow or frost would hamper the number of wren boys who would visit us.
The tradition of hunting the wren is believed to go back several hundred years and throughout that time many versions of the wren rhyme were recited or sung. There were long and shortened versions of this rhyme and it also varied in different localities but the one recited locally through the 50s, 60s and 70s was:
“The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
St Stephen’s day was caught in the furze,
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Give us some money to bury the wran”
Legend has it that the little wren betrayed St Stephen, the first christian martyr by flapping its wings to attract the enemies to where St Stephen was hiding and as a result the wren’s punishment was to be hunted and killed each St Stephen’s day. The story also goes that at one time, the different breeds of birds took part in a contest to see which one could fly the highest. The eagle soared higher than any other but when it tired the tiny wren emerged from its tail feathers where it had hitched a ride and flew far above the eagle and so was crowned ‘king of all birds’.
Back in the 1800s wren boys would actually spend several days before Christmas hunting and killing the wren which was then hung on a branch of holly along with coloured ribbons and rags and on wren day was proudly carried through villages and from house to house. It should be said however, that outside of the ritual killing around St Stephen’s day, it was generally regarded as unlucky to injure the wren at any other time of the year or to rob its nest. The hunting of the wren on St Stephen’s day was exclusively for boys at that time and the first group to visit a house carrying the holly branch with the body of the wren was considered to bring good luck for the following year and was rewarded accordingly. Wren boys who came later were not so fortunate and so it became customary for the boys to set out very early, while it was still dark and sing outside a house. The holly branches were usually thrown away around twelve noon. Each set of wren boys buried their wren at the end of the day together with a penny coin but sometimes the wren was buried in front of a house where a contribution had not been received. This deed was to be feared as it was thought that no luck would enter that particular house for twelve months. In many places the wren proceedings turned rowdy and at times the wren boys got drunk well before the end of the day. Sometimes, too, rival groups of wren boys met and fought, especially when one group invaded the locality of another.
From the early 1900s though, the custom had undergone many changes and it became relatively rare to see a dead wren on the holly branches. Rags, ribbons and scraps of Christmas decorations continued to adorn them and became more colourful. Later on girls joined in the wren day tradition dressed as boys. Both boys and girls were called ‘wren boys’. It was very important for the wren boys to ensure they were well camouflaged and not recognised so great trouble was taken in disguising their faces and in preparing the costumes. A mask or ‘agaidhfidil’ was widely used to cover the face and soot and black polish would have been used to blacken the skin. Pieces of net curtains were often draped under caps (with cut-outs for the eyes and mouth) to disguise the identity of the wren boy. The boys often wore women’s skirts and girls would attire themselves in men’s trousers, held up with safety pins and twine. Old torn coats were worn, turned inside out and all shapes and makes of caps and hats, usually turned back to front and coloured trimmings finished off the ensembles.
In later years the wren boys started their rounds much later in the morning, commencing around ten o’clock but went on later in the evening. They were usually very respectful and in most areas were met with good humoured tolerance. In some places the failure of the wren boys to visit a house would be taken as an insult to the occupants. On the other hand, a household in which a person had died during the year was not visited. The wren boys would have been invited in to several houses for a warm cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake. Some would have accepted the invitation but others would continue on their way in order to visit as many houses as possible in the daylight and so earn more money.
In certain parts of the country where large groups of wren boys had collected a good sum of money they would arrange a wren party for St Stephen’s night when a barrel of porter was bought and various items of food and drink were provided for everyone. A great night of music, dancing and fun followed, which lasted until morning. These occasions would have been more common in West Limerick and in Kerry and in Dingle in particular where the wren boys still dress up in straw costumes and hats. Indeed dressing up in green and gold clothing was also popular in Kerry and wren boys in various other parts of west Munster were known to clothe themselves in white apparel. The hunting of the wren is still very much alive in these areas today.
Locally the tradition of carrying the holly branch died out through the 60s and 70s and the wren boys concentrated on dressing themselves as garishly as possible, all the while making sure they would not be recognised. Some groups in the 60s would have had tin whistles and fiddles and occasionally a bodhrán with them and there was always a good singer in the group. It was a wondrous sight and sound to open the door to a talented wren group who would proceed to play some lively traditional airs and then the singer might sing a good rousing song. They were unfailingly cheerful, colourful and loud but never lingered too long. They usually travelled by bicycle and would cover a large area. A lot of those talented wren boys finished up by visiting the pubs that night and again they burst through the doors of the pubs and played some robust music for the customers. They would have been well rewarded in the pub and again the entertainment would be enjoyable but swift and off they would go to visit the next pub. The music played by the wren boys was nearly always Irish traditional music but the songs would vary with the year and what was popular on the wireless. ‘I’ll Tell My Ma’ was given many a rendition and amazingly one group of our wren ‘boys’ last year sang it yet again. Christmas songs and carols were always popular as well. It must have been a dilemma at the time as to whether to hunt the wren alone or with others as a wren boy with a talent to play the tin whistle or sing well would earn a lot more money on his own.
To be fair there were also some shockingly bad performances when the songs were completely off key or the perennial tin whistle tune ‘doh- ray- me -me- ray - me - so - so - lah - so- me- doh- ray - doh – doh- doh ..............’ known as ‘ The Dawning of the Day’ would start and stop for a time and start again and stop again without ever really getting going! A lot of youngsters in the 60s got harmonicas (mouth organs) for Christmas. These were difficult instruments to play and several of them had their inaugural performance on St Stephen’s day – hard on the ears! But we enjoyed the bad performances almost as much as the good ones because they too were part and parcel of the day.
I remember we owned a terrier during the 60s who though lovely was the bane of our lives on St Stephen’s day. When a lone wren boy visited and started to play a tune on an instrument this terrier would immediately start to howl in the most unbecoming way. The louder the tune became the louder the howl grew and more or less drowned out the music completely while we, the audience inside the front door would be falling around the place laughing. My poor mother laughing herself would eventually open the door and never knew whether to apologise for the dog or ignore what had just happened. She mostly chose the latter!
I always longed to hunt the wren but my father would never allow it. I did however sneak out one St Stephen’s day and joined up with my friend Josephine Hayes and off we went. I don’t think either of us was very talented in the singing area and we didn’t play an instrument but amazingly we managed to accumulate quite a bit of money from our efforts. We headed then for Julie Buckley’s and spent our entire earnings in her shop! We should have planned our route more carefully as I thought I had got away with my escapade until a woman in one of the houses where we ‘performed’ told my mother all of two days later. My mother spent at least a week threatening to tell my father but she never did. That finished my ‘hunting the wren’ career.
I know of several people however who thoroughly planned their wren route and only visited the houses where they knew they would get the most money. This was also a dilemma for the householders who would usually set aside a certain amount of money for the wren boys and it was difficult to know how much to give each one as they didn’t know how many more would follow. Therefore some of those who appeared last thing at night could either get a windfall or nothing!
Locally, for the most part now the tradition of hunting the wren is dying out but there are still localities where it is very much alive. Musicians go from pub to pub to entertain larger crowds and the money collected now is given to charity. The tradition is still alive and thriving in Birdhill, Co. Tipperary where groups of musicians, singers and dancers set off each year to various pubs where they provide good rousing traditional entertainment and the proceeds are donated to Millford Hospice. Regardless of the origin of the tradition, the hunting of the wren has always added a colourful and enjoyable diversion to that special day of the Christmas season when the winter days are so short and dark.
‘ The little eagle conquering wren has died
For him, tautly poised on the threshold there.
Gaunt in his fomorian pride
White feathers in his hair
Swaddled in gold and green
His right fist flicks the swarthy stick
And beats the goatskin tambourine’
From The Wren-Boy by Brendan Kennelly