Midwinter’s Merry Rabble – The ‘Wren Boys’ in Folk Tradition

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Despite the revelry and excess enjoyed by some late into Christmas night, we might expect little by way of quiet or tranquillity on the morning of St. Stephen’s Day (the 26th of December), for this is the day that the Wren Boys make their rounds.

Early on this morning, laneways and roadways across much of Ireland resounded with the clamour and din of music and singing as the Wren Boys made their noisy procession from house to house, entreating their neighbours for money and in return providing entertainment and bestowing good luck upon the homes to which they called. A publication from 1775 AD described such rowdy groups as those ‘who perform frolics in a personated dress’, and their troupe (travelling in disguise) wore costumes of old rags, women’s clothes, tattered crowns or elaborate masks made of straw – theirs was a presence marked by altogether boisterous and jocular behaviour.

In the weeks leading up to this spectacle, it was common to see crowds of youths peering into hedges in search of the tiny wren, and on discovering their elusive fare, they would chase the unfortunate creature, throwing stones and other missiles at it until it was slain. The purpose of this hunt was revealed on the morning of St. Stephen’s Day when the body of the tiny bird was borne aloft, tied to a holly bush decorated with brightly coloured ribbons and carried around the locality by the Wren Boys; a surreal centrepiece to their procession.

The custom of ‘croosing’ – a corrupted form of the word ‘cruising’ – or hunting the wren in this manner has existed here, as well as being found in varying forms in England, Cornwall, France, the Isle of Mann and Wales, since the middle ages. So if, while cruising around your locale dressed in your mother’s clothing, wearing a bag on your head and petitioning your neighbours for money, you are met only with whispers and sour looks, you might enlighten their givers with the information that you are in fact expressing an important aspect of your cultural heritage; carrying out a practice that has existed in this country, and across Europe, for a great many centuries.

While our gallant rabble went about their procession, they rapidly sang a verse explaining their parade (and its bizarre centrepiece) to all those they visited, claiming to have killed the wren (generally pronounced ‘wran’) and beseeching the occupants of the house to give them money to pay for the burial of the poor bird:

‘The wran, the wran the king of all birds,

St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,

Although he is little, his family is great,

Put your hand in your pocket and give us a treat,

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

Give us the money to bury the wran’.

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Moneys gathered from the mornings proceedings were generally spent on drinking at a ‘Wren Party’ held later that evening. In many instances, the Wren Boys were quite drunk before the end of the day, and such was their rowdiness that in 1845, the mayor of Cork prohibited the ‘hunting of the little bird on St. Stephen’s Day by all the idle fellows of the country’.

But why all this antagonism towards the poor wren, you ask? Dry your tears, for you need not feel entirely sorry for the fellow. Across Europe, and indeed in the verse sung by the Wren Boys, the wren was recognised as ‘the king of all birds’. In Greece he was known by the stately epithet Basileus, meaning simply ‘King’, in Germany is referred to as Zaunkönig or ‘Hedge-King’ and in the Netherlands is titled Winter-Koning or ‘Winter-King’.

A common story dating from around the 6th century BC however, tells us how the wren’s royal title was granted to him, after he cheated in a competition held to see who could fly the highest among all of the birds. This he did by hiding away in an eagle’s wing. As the eagle soared over his competitors and declared himself king of the birds, the wren emerged from his hiding place, and, in flying slightly higher than the eagle, succeeded in gaining the crown for himself. It is precisely this sort of cold and scheming behaviour that sets our wren out as somewhat of a rogue figure in popular tradition, no doubt smoking and pretending to read Camus or Machiavelli in his spare time.

Despite allegations of treachery being levied at the wren in folklore, the Wren Boys (who weren’t all drunkenness and carousing) would hold a small ritual ceremony for their deceased and bedraggled companion at the end of the day’s proceedings. Sometimes burying the creature on consecrated ground, and sometimes ceremoniously laying the wren to rest outside the house of an individual who had been less than generous in their offerings to the Wren Boys (a ritual that would ensure no good luck would come to the occupant of that particular house throughout the coming year). To keep one of the elusive creature’s feathers in your purse or pocket however, was thought to bring good luck for the year ahead. Until that is, the Wren Boys would again break the crisp quiet of St. Stephen’s morning with their singing and music, traipsing along lanes and roadways to the next house, merrily brandishing the ‘king of the birds’ with them as they went.