The Ancient Festival of Following the Wren

The day after Christmas Day goes by many different names. In a number of European countries it is known simply as the second day of Christmas – you know, the day your true love gives you two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

Commonwealth countries generally refer to it as Boxing Day and there are plenty of theories about the origin of the name. There was an old English tradition where servants of the wealthy, having waited upon their masters on Christmas Day, were given the following day off to visit their families. As a gesture of goodwill, they were sent off home with a box of leftover food and if they were lucky, a gift or bonus. There’s also a belief that the name refers to Alms Boxes located in places of worship to collect donations for the needy. The donations were distributed to the poor on December 26th each year.

It is often referred to as St. Stephen’s Day because it coincides with the religious feast of St. Stephen; the first Christian martyr who was accused of blasphemy and stoned to death.

But there is another name for this day which is not so well known. In Ireland, while most people refer to it as St. Stephen’s Day, those in the know call it Wren Day, or Lá an Dreoilín in Irish. The wren, known as the king of birds, has long been a symbol of wisdom and divinity. Ancient druids studied their flight patterns and used them to predict future events. In fact, the Irish name for wren, dreoilín, is believed to be derived from two words, draoi ean, meaning Druid bird.

But this poor little bird has been burdened with the blame for some tragic events. One story tells of St. Stephen, hiding from his persecutors in a bush, being betrayed by a chattering wren. Another legend has the wren betraying Irish soldiers during the Viking invasions. As the Irish were sneaking towards a camp of sleeping Norsemen, a wren flapped its wings against one of their shields and another pecked breadcrumbs off a drum, waking the invaders who then defeated the Irish.

Now I’m willing to bet that the dear little wren was stitched up and never betrayed anyone. Both stories may well have been cooked up by early Christians hoping to weaken the power of the Druids, and their beloved druid bird suffered collateral damage in the process. Truth or no, a tradition known as Hunting the Wren (pronounced Wran) began; where Wren Boys would follow and kill a wren on St. Stephen’s Day, parading it through the streets, going door to door looking for a little food or a penny or two, dancing and singing..

The Wran – The Wran – the king of all birds
On Saint Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze
Although he is little his family is great
Come out your honour and give us a treat.

Thankfully, the days of “wren-icide” are over. Nowadays the wren is merely symbolic and the druid bird once again reigns supreme as the king of birds. The most well-known Wren Day takes place in Dingle, but I discovered to my delight another festival that’s been gathering momentum for quite some time in the charming village of Sandymount, just south of Dublin city. I just couldn’t resist popping along this morning to check out the festivities.

The streets surrounding the village green were closed to traffic and thronging with merry-makers. There was poetry, music, dancing and spectacle with the crowning of the ‘Father of the Wran’. Street vendors plated up hot food and surrounding pubs were doing a roaring trade in mulled wine, guaranteed to chase away the winter chill.

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The festival-goers were decked out in costumes ranging from Santa hats to intricate concoctions worthy of the Carnival of Venice. Even four-legged revellers got in on the action.

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I was dazzled by the gorgeous array of masks on display and felt seriously under-dressed without a mask of my own. Yes, I admit it, I had mask-envy.

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dublin, sandymount wren boys, wren festival, wren day, st stephen's day, travel, travelogue, photography, ailsa prideaux-mooney, ireland

dublin, sandymount wren boys, wren festival, wren day, st stephen's day, travel, travelogue, photography, ailsa prideaux-mooney, ireland

I wandered through the crowds taking photos but it wasn’t long before I was whisked up into the arms of a dashing Wran Boy and twirled into the frothy swirl of dancers circling the green. This is a festival where participation is pretty much a non-negotiable. If you don’t believe me, check it out here:

But the highlight of the day came when I got chatting to the Master of Ceremonies, the fabulous Pat McEvoy, who shared with me a few more secrets about the festival, including how the wren became king of all birds, and the meaning behind the festival costumes. Here’s what Pat had to say:

Next year the Sandymount festival will be celebrating its 30th year. If you are in the neighbourhood next Wren Day make sure you go along, and be prepared to dance. I will be back for sure; I’m already looking for a mask to wear. Happy Wren Day!

xxx Ailsa

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - wheresmybackpack.com - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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40 Responses to The Ancient Festival of Following the Wren

  1. dadirri7 says:

    marvellous post thanks Ailsa … we spent Christmas Day here in Australia with an Irish relative who comes form Dingle … he was talking about Wren Day and how his parents could not come over for Christmas as Wren Day was too important to miss!

    • ailsapm says:

      Ooh, what a coincidence. I’ve never been to Wren Day in Dingle but I hear it’s a fantastic celebration. Hope you’re having a wonderful holiday! xxx Ailsa

  2. Beth Hayes says:

    Loved this one!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. helen1950 says:

    I, as you know love few facts 🙂 and will dine out on this one !!! it is a cracker!! And will honour the little wren that hangs out in our bushes. Have a great holiday and as Dave Allen used to say ‘May your God go with you’

  4. Leya says:

    Wonderful post and stories. I had never heard of this day before! but the story of how the wren became king of all birds goes the same here in Sweden as well – but here it is not the wren who is king, it is the little Goldcrest!

  5. Rusha Sams says:

    Thanks so mich for sharing the history of Wren Day and sharing the pics of happy people wearing masks! We’ve been to Dingle. This just makes me want to go back!

    • ailsapm says:

      Anything that involves the wearing of sparkly masks is alright by me! It was such a fun day. I hope you get back to Dingle sometime soon, Rusha. Maybe next Wren Day? xxx Ailsa

  6. joanfrankham says:

    We were at a similar event here in Cork where the wren boys were all dressed in straw costumes, and of course, the dancing was obligatory!

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh cool, I’ve seen photos of those Straw Boys, Joan, and heard tales that they originally dressed in straw so they could sneak kisses from the girls without fear of discovery. The church was outraged, apparently! Hee hee.

  7. pommepal says:

    Lovely happy post Ailsa. Every time I walk along the path that borders the beach I spot a family of wrens foraging in the shrubbery between the path and the beach I will look at them with fresh eyes and reverence for their position in the bird world from now on. 🙂

  8. Steve Hanley says:

    I have spent many a happy hour listening to the Clancy Brothers rendition of The Wren Song and am delighted to learn more about the tradition. A marvelous post. Thank you for sharing your joyful celebration with us.

  9. Fabulous post. Happy Wren Day to you, too. Thanks.

  10. sueslaght says:

    Great post. Glad to know about Wren day…now where to get one of those fabulous masks…:)

  11. Reblogged this on Peacejusticelove's Blog and commented:
    What good fun, dance, song in community this is! This brought smiles to my face. Here’s to the Irish people (some of my genetic ancestors)!

  12. I did some research on this a few years ago when I first came across it. There’s an interesting article here: http://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/wren.html
    and Seamus Tansey recalls this in his 3 CD recording Phantom Shadows of a Connaught Fire light, an edited transcripted can be read here: http://www.folkworld.de/20/e/seamus.html

    THE WRAN BOYS

    The Wran – The Wran – the king of all birds
    On Saint Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze
    Although he is little his family is great
    Come out your honour and give us a trate
    Hurrah me boys hurrah

    Droleen – Droleen – where is your nest?
    ‘Tis in the tree that I love best
    ‘Tis in the holly and ivy tree
    Where all the birds come singing to me

    As I was going up the Slippery Dock
    I saw an old wren he was up on a rock
    I up with me stick and I hit him a lick
    And I knocked him into a brandy shop

    I have a little box* under me arm
    A shilling or two will do it no harm
    A shilling or two is a great relief
    To the poor Wren Boys on a Christmas Eve

    The Wren – The Wren as you may see
    Is up for height on the holly tree
    A bunch or ribbons by his side
    And a little wren boy will be his guide

    God bless the master of this house
    A golden chain around his neck
    And if he do be sick or whole
    May the Lord have mercy on his soul

    * box is a musical instrument of the accordion family
    I think it’s so important to retain all these local traditions, they are part of our cultural heritage

    • ailsapm says:

      Great stuff. You’re so right, those local traditions are treasures; a doorway into a place’s past. Happy New Year to you! xxx Ailsa

  13. Pingback: 12-27-13 Travel Theme: Birds | The Quotidian Hudson

  14. Tahira says:

    Hope you had a wonderful Christmas, Ailsa! And I wish you a very Happy New Year. All the best in 2014!

  15. What an interesting way to celebrate the second day of Christmas! It reminds me a lot of carnival or Fasching which will be celebrated in Germany and other parts of Europe in about 6 weeks or so. I guess winter time is so dreary that from ancient times, people had to bring in some color and light to make it through the worst of winter! Happy New Year to you!

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh, Fasching is always so much fun, and yes, those masks definitely put me in mind of Carnival. Happy New Year to you too, hope its a good one. xxx Ailsa

  16. melmannphoto says:

    So little a bird being celebrated in such a big way. Thanks for telling this story and teaching me something new!

  17. Lucid Gypsy says:

    Absolutely wonderful Ailsa, I’ve never heard of this and its so good to learn 🙂

    • ailsapm says:

      I love unearthing stuff like this, Gilly. Until I did some research on this festival, I never knew the little wren was known as the druid bird. I’m even fonder of wrens now that I was before. 🙂

  18. Love this post! I’ve been to Ireland 3 times and even to Dingle, and never heard of Wren Day! Looks awesome, thanks for sharing! I’ll have to make it over there for the celebration one year 🙂

    • ailsapm says:

      Ooh, excellent, yes, you’ll have to return to celebrate Wren Day in the future. If you don’t make it to Dingle, definitely check out the Sandymount Festival – it’s really easy to get to from Dublin and was an awful lot of fun. Happy New Year! xxx Ailsa

  19. What a lovely tradition. Wrens are common here, but never knew the history. The masks and celebrations look awesome

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