One of the richest traditions observed in the Republic of Ireland at Christmas time is the age-old custom of Hunting the Wren, an event that takes place on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26. The festival, known as lá an Dreolín in Irish, commemorates an ancient ritual of rural revelers, who would travel from door to door begging for money or treats.
During penal times, there was once a plot in a village against the local soldiers. They were surrounded, and about to be ambushed, when a group of wrens pecked on their drums and awakened the soldiers. The plot failed and the wren became known as the devil’s bird. On St. Stephen’s Day, a procession takes place where a pole with a holly bush is carried from house to house and families dress up in old clothes and with blackened faces. In olden times, an actual wren would be killed and placed on top of the pole.
The participants, originally called Wren Boys or mummers, often carried a wren—sometimes pronounced and written wran—in a cage and pretended the bird was ask¬ing for alms. More popular, however, was the tradition of carrying a stuffed wren hung on a pole or placed in a bed of evergreens or furze, a spiny shrub. As they walked around the village, they sang: “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds. St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze; Up with kattle and down with the pan. Give us our hansel [money] to bury the wren.”
The Wren Boys came masked and dressed in outlandish costumes or motley clothing, often made of straw. They would visit houses in rural neighborhoods, playing accordions and drums called bodhráns (pronounced bowrawn), and begging for donations for the evening’s Wren dance.
Tradition has it that the first group of Wren Boys would be welcomed to a house because they were said to bring good luck, but those who came afterwards were usually not as well appreciated. At the end of the day, it was customary to bury the wren, so if the boys were not suitably rewarded at a particular household, they retaliated by burying the wren opposite the front door to prevent luck from entering the house for that year.
Although this tradition has died out in many parts of Ireland, it is very much alive and well in Dingle, in County Kerry. In his book Green and Gold: The Wrenboys of Dingle, local author, Steve MacDonogh, says, “The Wren is an explosion of light, color, and boisterous exuberance in the midst of winter’s gloom, and has continued as an unbroken tradition—changing, but never dying out.” The great tradition in Dingle is quite competitive, with Wren Boys from the main Wren groups of the town vying for bragging rights for best turn-out, best music, and best rigs.
Other popular St. Stephen’s Day activities in Ireland include going to the races (the Leopardstown Christmas Festival is one of the most popular) or joining a local fox hunt. In Northern Ireland, December 26 is known as Boxing Day, which commemorates the old British tradition of giving servants the day off and presenting them with a small boxed gift.
Dingle Wren Day photo courtesy of Gerald Horgan, www.dinglepeninsula.smugmug.com