Thursday 22 February 2018

Flashback 1955: Wren Boy celebrations

'Wren's Day' celebrations on 26th December in Ireland, circa 1955. (Photo by George Pickow/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
'Wren's Day' celebrations on 26th December in Ireland, circa 1955. (Photo by George Pickow/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ger Siggins

Traditionally on this day, December 26, Wren Boys set out around the country to catch the king of all birds and raise some coppers for a party.

'The wren, the wren, 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 a penny to bury the wren."

So goes one of many variations of the Wren song, traditionally aired each December 26 as children and adults visited neighbouring homes to raise cash to be spent on a party for the village.

As a tradition, the wren (or "ran") boys had died out in the cities early in the last century but had survived in rural parts and small towns where the day was known as Lá na Dreolín.

Its origins are mysterious, but the poor bird has certainly drawn plenty of enemies. One version has it that when Irish forces were about to ambush Cromwell's army, a wren did a little dance on a drum which woke the sentries and foiled the raid.

Another theory lies in the martyrdom of St Stephen who was said to have been betrayed by a chattering wren. The saint was then stoned to death.

In revenge, the Wren Boys would hunt down a wren and stone it to death. It was hung from a holly stake and carried in procession as the songs were sung and funds raised.

The parades often drew criticism, with the Rev Moane of Ballyhaunis railing in 1932 against boys and girls "dressing themselves up in hideous disguises of rags and tatters and going about from door to door to the great annoyance of the people, soliciting coppers and making fools of themselves."

The tradition of travelling folk plays can be seen as long ago as 1458 when a season was performed in Christmas week at Hoggen Green in Dublin city centre. The Wren story also has echoes in Gaelic and Norse tradition, and there are similar traditions of ritual torturing of the tiny bird in France and Spain.

Happily the bird-killing aspect of the tradition has long been abandoned in Ireland - it is illegal, too - and now any clump of feathers can represent the bird.

Thirty years ago the Irish Independent reported that St Brendan's Society had organised a traditional Wren Boys' march in Dublin. Bairbre Power wrote about how the group called into the home of then-taoiseach Garret FitzGerald who was busy shaving. After a "trate" had been delivered, on went the band soliciting donations for a mental handicap charity.

That grouping, which included minister Ruairí Quinn as well as judges and ambassadors, confined themselves to the well-heeled parts of Dublin 6, but the following year they planned to perform in Cabra, Kilmacud and Sandymount. The latter outing, with Mr Quinn still to the fore, has become the standard bearer for wren boys in Dublin and still raises funds annually for the local branch of Cerebral Palsy, now Enable Ireland.

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