Wrenboys in Ireland: ‘The wran, the wran, the king of all birds...'
Proverb: "Don't make a custom or break a custom".

Wrenboys Athea Limerick 1946

The tradition is very much on the wane now but in some few localities Wrenboys still go out in Ireland on St. Stephens Day (English Boxing Day). The central theme of the wrenboy visit is the wren, an effigy of which is carried about in a holly branch or in a box or cage. Previously it was hunted and killed prior to St. Stepen's Day and a matter of honour for groups to have a real bird.
  Why, of all birds, is the inoffensive little wren chosen as the martyr for display by groups who take their name from it?   Because of its treachery, some claim!  When the Irish forces were about to catch Cromwells troops by surprise, a wren perched on one of the soldiers drums made a noise that woke the sleeping sentries just in time, thereby saving the camp. 
  Another explanation is that it 'betrayed St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, by flapping its wings to attract his pursuers when he was hiding'.  More say the hostility towards this most harmless of creatures results from the efforts of  clerics in the middle ages to undermine vestiges of druidic reverence and practices regarding the bird.  Medieval texts interpret the etymology of wren, the Irish for which is dreolín, as derived from 'dreán' or 'draoi éan' the translation of which is 'druid bird'.
Clíona the seductress
One of the most interesting legends is that Cliona, a woman of the otherworld, seduced young men to follow her to the seashore.  Here they drowned in the ocean into which she enticed them.  Eventually a charm was discovered that, not only protected against her wiles, but could also bring about her destruction.  Her only method of escape was to turn herself into a wren.  As a punishment for her crimes she was forced to take the shape of the little bird on every succeeding Christmas Day and fated to die by human hand.  Hence the seemingly barbarous practice of hunting the wren.    

Yeats illustration of Wrenboys with ribboned bush

Groups who went out in the Sligo-Leitrim area could only say, by way of explanation, that ‘she betrayed Our Lord’.  In what way nobody knew, but because of this ‘it was good to hunt and kill her around Christmas’. Long ago bands of youths knocked ditches and scoured hedges in order to capture and kill the bird to have it for display. ‘The Boys of Barr na Sraide’ immortalises in ballad the young men ‘who roamed about with cudgels stout, a-searching for the wran’.  Pursuit of the bird persisted, with the Wrenboys of Co. Kildare, into the early years of the 20th century.  Accounts relate that for a day or two previous to the holiday it was, ‘hunted and knocked over with stick or stone.  Two or three of them are tied to a branch torn from a holly bush, which is decorated with coloured ribbons.  On St. Stephen's Day, small parties of young boys carry one of these bushes about the country, and visit the houses along the road soliciting coin or eatables.  At each house they come to they repeat a version of a "song" which varies in different localities.  All versions seem disjointed and in no way refer to St. Stephen's Day nor to the object of killing the wren.'
  Some groups settled for a cork with feathers attached thereby allowing the creature spend the holiday undisturbed.  They 'carry around little toy birds on a decorated bier, and they themselves have ribbons and coloured pieces of cloth tied to their clothes.  If they receive no welcome at a house and are told to, “be off out of that”, there is the danger of them burying one of the wrens opposite the hall-door, through which no luck would then enter for a twelvemonth.  Eventually, at the end of the festivities, each wren is buried with a penny.’
The Wrenboy tradition in other countries

Wrenboy ceremonies, with different forms of verse to Ireland, were popular in France, England and the Isle of Man.  There were other cultural differences too in that the wren was hunted in England but not in Scotland.  In France, the first person to kill the bird was king!  Except for the ritual killing on St. Stephen's Day, it was universally regarded as unlucky to injure the wren at any other time or to rob its nest.  Where the tradition survives today a fake bird is always used.

Wrenboy tradition in other counties

Dingle, Co. Kerry Wrenboys 2005

In Munster, particularly in Co. Kerry, the Wrenboys ritual is almost as elaborate as the Mummers.  The associated drama performed in Dingle at one time incorporated ceremonial group combat.  The play was thought to be very ancient, ‘possibly dating back to the second millenium B.C.’.  Here, a Captain is dressed in a sort of uniform carrying a sword. There is another character called the amadán and an óinseach or female jester.  A wooden frame resembling a horse, called a láir bhán (white mare),  is carried on the shoulders.  In some places, names are given to the characters, as in the Mummers, and a mock battle held between one group with wooden swords and another with large bladders tied to sticks.

Dublin Wrenboys 1933



In Sligo and Leitrim masks are an important part of the tradition in Mumming as well as the Wran. Accounts survive of two different sets of wrenboys who went out in Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim, in the early 1900's.  One group consisted of five to fifteen year olds.  The other was composed of grown-ups. 
  The younger people went out dressed in women's clothes with false faces made of calico painted with shoe polish or black paint.  Holes were cut for the nose and eyes.   They went along the road knocking on doors collecting money.  When someone answered their knock they would say:
‘Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Give us a penny to bury the wran.’ 

  The grown-ups were more professional.  They went out in batches of ten or twelve dressed in old trousers made of calico or curtain cloth. Coats were made of the same material.  Hats with feathers or red handkerchiefs were worn on the head.  False faces similar to that worn by the younger Wrenboys concealed  their identity.  Sometimes horse hair was worn on the hat or attached to the false face to look like whiskers. Eyewitnesses wrote that, 'there was a great splash of colour about them'.  In compliance with laws in force at the time the man with the money box always went unmasked.  
  The group pretended to have a wren concealed in a starch box nailed on top of a stick and decorated with ribbons, but in reality there was no bird there: ‘Sometimes it might be a mouse and sometimes, sorry to say, a robin.  Usually it was only a bunch of hay or moss.  The group that could boast a real wren were out on their own because the wren was the most difficult of birds to catch.  The lad carrying the standard would stand well back because the young lassies in the house would try to capture it to see if it was a real wren.  If you were caught with a substitute for the real thing you lost face and came in for some banter and humbugging.’
  Dancers and musicians, fiddle, flute, melodeon, bodhran and at least one good singer went along.  Cycling to neighbouring towns they sang, danced and played as they travelled from house to house.  When lorries came along they journeyed further to Longford and Boyle.  Collecting money as they went, sixpence to a shilling was the usual contribution in a house, more in a pub or place where a few were gathered to play cards or to ramble.  The Wrenboys rhyme, which was recited before the collection, varied from place to place but was generally a variation of:
‘The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen's day was caught in the furze.
His body is little but his family is great
So rise up landlady and give us a trate.
And if your trate be of the best
Your soul in heaven can find its rest.
And if your trate be of the small
It won’t plaze the boys at all.
A glass of whiskey and a bottle of beer
Merry Christmas and a glad New Year.
So up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wran.

  Sometimes the lines, ‘We chased him from bush to bush and from tree to tree, and in Donnelly’s Hollow we cracked his knee’, were included. 
The 'Join'
The proceeds of the collection was spent on a party called a ‘Join’.   Picking a house for the shindig, a barrel of porter was bought for the men and wine for the ladies.  Jam, currant cake, bread, sugar and lemonade was provided for everyone.  A 'great night of sport and fun, dancing and music', followed that lasted until morning.
  A Tullaghan, Co. Leitrim man, who went out with a mummer band in West Fermanagh in 1911, recalled that they were generally made welcome.  However, ‘in a few places dogs were set on us and in one place we were fired on’.   They were required to have 'a line', written permission, from the local Justice of the Peace.  R.I.C. patrols often challenged them to produce this as evidence of their 'authority’. 
  Over three nights they travelled a distance of thirty miles during which they accumulated ten pounds.  This they spent on stout and minerals for their Mummers Dance.  They had two pounds left over which they gave to a poor woman in the locality with no means.

The Wrenboys today  

Cloonacool Wrenboys bring the Wran to children 2007

  Mummers and Wrenboys still collect money at the end of their visit; they still hold a ‘Join’ or 'Mummers Ball' after the holidays.  It's increasingly difficult to get participants in Sligo/Leitrim to wear disguise in the traditional manner and most groups don't go from house to house anymore but to pubs and other places where large crowds gather. The transition has been forced by migrations in rural populations almost as great as those during the famine of the 19th century.  Lifestyles too have changed dramatically.
  For mummers doing the rounds in the fifties it was a short walk from house to house, each home filled with young and old.  Now, silence pervades the lonely roads; the step of carefree feet, the ring of laughing voices; the joyous faces that filled the welcoming kitchens, are gone. 
  Yet, Mummers and Wrenboys survive.  Pub or house, where people gather they follow although not so much anymore and not in traditional dress. Nursing and retirement homes are entertained at least once over the holiday season.  Especially important is a visit to houses where there are young children so they can experience the magic of Mummers and Wrenboys, and remembering the merriment, carry on this oldest of traditions. 

Cloonacool Wrenboy with admirer

  A particularly enthusiastic welcome is given to performers in rural areas.  Perhaps atavistic resonances survive here of ancient death and revival ceremonies, rituals that were as important as life itself to men and women who lived by the soil and the capricious whimsy of unseen gods.  Do country dwellers harbour ancestral memories of deities that in a dark past required not just ceremony but sacrifice as well?
  Now, the Mummer and Wrenboy tale is nothing more than a diversion, an exhibition of outrageous fantasy, commonsense turned on its head to relieve the gloom of short, dark days.  Who can resist a festive invitation to dress in absurd costumes, don ridiculous masks and headdress, and go about from place to place unrecognised; free spirits of the otherworld or any world bursting upon an unsuspecting audience with song, music and dance. 
  This lively custom is sprung from the hearts and hearths of  country people.  Remarkably it has withstood the challenge of packaged entertainment.  The Wrewnboys revive each year.  Like the mythical phoenix they burst forth from the fireplaces and spark the ancient revels.  Dressed in bizarre and colourful garb they storm houses and meeting places, bringing a whirlwind of high spirits for a short while to the lucky occupants. 
Don't miss the Mummers or Wrenboys next year when they call forth the shades of Christmas past!

From Echoes of a Savage Land © Joe Mc Gowan

Wrenboys, Sandymount Dublin 2007

For information and a short story on Mummers and Strawboys go HERE

Recommended reading:
Echoes of a Savage Land, Joe Mc Gowan
The Year in Ireland, Kevin Danaher, p246.
Journals of the Kildare Archaeological Society, V, 452.
View the West Clare Wrenboys on Youtube HERE
View the related Mummer play HERE

Heritage: ‘Yesterday’s gift to today; today’s gift to tomorrow “














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