Going out on 'The Wran' was a strong tradition that I grew up with in the Mealagh Valley in West Cork. We would all dress up in all sorts of costumes, grab our instrument, and pile into the back of a van early in the day only to return late at night. In between, we would call to every house in the valley, play (traditional Irish) music, dance sets and donations would be gathered for a predetermined community project like the primary school, community hall, the hospice and so on. Back then, we all did it, kids and adults alike, and each valley had their own main Wran Boy groups (and infamous Wran Balls).
Going out on The Wran brought cheer and community spirit to those who were visited, many saying it was the highlight of their year. For the Wran Boys, there was a sense of pride about it, and connection. Of the funds collected, some was put towards putting on a 'Wran Ball', a community dance that was normally arranged locally shortly thereafter, and people would come from far and wide to be at the ball. For us, it never had anything to do with capturing wrens, nor symbolically representing one, it was about bringing music and dance to each home in the valley. This is what we did in West Cork, perhaps it was done differently elsewhere in the country.
The roots of Wren Day extend back to pre-Christian times and its significance is most likely tied to the beginning of the new solar year following the winter solstice. However, there are a number of theories as to the origins of this sometimes grizzly parade but most agree that it is the remnants of a type of sacrificial offering in order to acknowledge the death of winter. Another link to this interpretation is that the wren was said to be a bird which continued to sing throughout the deep midwinter, and in some north European countries the bird is known as ‘the winter king’.
Much later Christian reasons for hunting the wren were said to be because of the bird’s treacherous nature and betrayal:
St Stephen was the very first Christian martyr: in the same year that Christ was crucified he claimed to have a vision of Jesus in heaven standing at the right hand of God. To Stephen’s enemies this was a blasphemy, and he was forced into hiding. But his hiding place was given away by the song of a little Wren, and St Stephen was publicly stoned to death. In retribution for this the Wren is traditionally hunted in Ireland (and some other Celtic countries) on St Stephen’s Day – December 26th, and groups of Wrenboys carry the bird from door to door – slung from a pole or interred in a small wooden coffin: there was a time when the poor Wren himself would have been stoned to death. An old story also blames the Wren for alerting a band of Vikings to the approach of the Irish army by pecking on a drum; yet another claims that when Cromwell’s soldiers were asleep and the Irish were about to attack, a flock of Wrens rose into the air and wakened the enemy with the sounds of their wingbeats. So there has always been a strong connection with betrayal.
…..…In comes I the Wran,
The Wran, the Wran, the king of all birds.
On St Stephen’s Day I was caught in the furze.
Although I am little my family is great,
Rise up landlady and give us a trate.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Give a few pence to bury the Wran.
Then I’ll dip my wings in a barrel of beer,
And I’ll wish you all a happy New Year.
Troglodytidae (cave dweller) is such a small bird: there's been a family of them living in the garden outside the clinic for some years now, and I've adored them for as long as I remember. Irrelevant of whether I am in Ireland or the Alps, they often tap on the windows to let me know they are there, more often than not, around the Winter Solstice.
Small, yet in mythology the Wren is a giant – King of the Birds in several traditions: Koning Vogel in German, Konije in Dutch, Reytelet in French, Bren in Welsh – all mean King or Little King. When the birds were electing their king they decided that whoever could fly the highest would win the contest; the Eagle easily outflew everyone else but the Wren was hiding in his wings until the Eagle had exhausted himself and then flew on up to claim the title. But there’s more: the Wren is forever associated with that turning point of the year when everything goes topsy turvy: the Twelve Days of Christmas. At this time the Lord of Misrule presides and traditional roles are reversed; it’s not surprising, then, that the tiniest of the birds should become the most important. But, like all kings, his reign is finite – and he is sacrificed at the dark year’s end to ensure that the sun will rise again.
The tradition up until recently has been for mostly boys and men to dress up, hiding their faces and to call house to house, usually with the greeting of, “Penny for the ‘wran’ or “Bury the ‘wran’” which was the offset pronunciation. These groups are called Wren Boys (or Mummers in Northern Ireland).
Another aspect of this day which is often commented upon is the fact that boys and men wore dresses. In Ireland this was sometimes seen as a way to thwart the fairies who were often thought to prefer abducting boys over girls. That said, there are also those who argue that this theory is more recent ‘fake lore’. But why hunt and kill the wren in the first place and why was it mostly men who carried out this practice?
The reasons seem to be related to Samhain or Solstice celebrations and a strange tale involving either a Banshee or Queen of the Fairies, depending upon your source. A name most commonly associated with this being is Cliona, who was said to emerge from either the ocean or the underworld and sing to seduce young men before luring them to their watery deaths. This has parallels to legends of the siren and other similar archetypes in world myths.
In the Isle of Man, Cliona is known under the name Tehi Tegi but the story is the same. Tehi Tegi would seduce the local men and lead them to the shore before drowning them. There, it is said that this queen of the underworld would transform into a wren when she was confronted and was cursed to return to land in this form every year after the winter solstice. It was for this reason that the wren was hunted. In some coastal communities the feathers of the dead wren were used as magical protection in order to prevent fishermen from drowning.
Another likely reason for hunting the wren was because of the birds association with Druids. When Christianity came to Ireland and began to ban, and sometimes incorporate, traditional pagan practices, the etymology of the word 'wren' had strong links to these wise people. The Irish for ‘wren’ is Dreolín from Draoi Éan, which means ‘The Druids Bird’ so the connection is easy to see.
Wren Day customs are not as widespread as they once were but there are still many rural communities in West Cork and Kerry where they take place.
There's a wonderfully charming old audio recording of Wren lore and traditions available here (transcript also shared)