This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any discrepancies or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!
Welcome to this Christmas episode of Unreal – a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
An Nollaig, or Christmas is fast approaching, and bringing with it the most folklore-filled season of the year. The giving of gifts and cards, the lighting of candles, the decorations, stories, meals and puddings are all enshrined in symbols and ritual. And as well as the major traditions, we each have our own smaller customs and memories. Christmas is a deeply personal holiday, distinctive to everyone who celebrates it. On long, cold winter’s nights, with little to look forward to, the Christmas rituals from years gone by remind us who we are and where we have come from, shining a light that guides us through the darkness of the season until the new year brings hope again.
Although our Christmas traditions feel as though they have been with us forever, many of them are actually much more recent than we might imagine. They arrived in a wave of popular sentiment during the 19th Century, led by British and American authors such as Charles Dickens, Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore. These writers’ stories and poems established the ideals of Christmas as we recognise it today, though in doing so these new customs overshadowed older traditions, and turned the Christmas feast into a commercial holiday, where the shops are just as important as the fireside conversation.
But some older traditions have survived – too strange and strong to be swept away in the tinsel and luxury. In Ireland, one of the oldest and most inexplicable traditions is still celebrated on St Stephen’s Day, December 26th. It all centers around one of the smallest, plainest birds in the bushes, who, despite his humble appearance, has inspired an annual procession from door to door, and thousands of years of stories and customs. So sit back and listen to the history of The Hunting of the Wren.
“The wren, the wren, the king of the birds,
On St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze
Up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wran”
If you live in Ireland, and particularly in South-West Munster, chances are you will have heard this pleaful song on your doorstep on the day after Christmas. The tradition of Hunting the Wren, has been alive and well through the generations for many centuries now.
The wren, a tiny brown speckled bird, hides in the hedgerows throughout the countryside, eating insects and small nuts and berries. Plain and small, this little bird seems an odd choice for such elaborate folklore and ritual. But across parts of Ireland, Britain, France and The Isle of Man, hunting the wren is one of the most long-lived winter traditions, and throughout Europe tales and legends since ancient times have regarded the little wren as an unlikely ruler: The King of the Birds.
The wren’s kingship is recognised in many European languages, where it is called Regulus, Little King, King of the Birds, or Winter King. And the tale of how the wren became King is very old. It has been attributed to Aesop, from over 2000 years ago in Ancient Greece. One day, all the birds of the forest decided to hold a contest to determine the King of the Birds. Whichever bird could fly to the greatest height would wear the crown, they said. Each bird soared as high as it could into the air, and it appeared that the mighty eagle would be the winner. But suddenly, just as the eagle had reached the highest its wings could take it, a little wren appeared in the air above it! The wren had hidden itself in the feathers on the eagle’s back, and by flying just a few inches higher, it secured the crown. The other birds were not impressed by the wren’s trickery however, and they clipped the feathers from his tail preventing him from flying any higher than the low bushes and hedgerows. To this day, the wren hides in these bushes to avoid the anger of its fellow birds.
This tale and other similar stories collected by folklorists like The Brothers Grimm, have given the wren a reputation for cleverness and cunning. So, although the little wren is called king, its royalty has always been bound up with suspicion and mistrust, and a sense that there might be darker forces in play – forces that need to be stopped.
Hunting the wren has a complex history, which is unsurprising as the festival itself is pretty bizarre. Groups of boys or young men would hunt and kill a wren in Winter, then bring its body from door to door in their community, singing carols, playing music, and asking for money to give the bird a proper burial. In Ireland, the festival happens straight after Christmas, on St Stephen’s Day.
Preparations for wren day began early, sometimes almost overshadowing the feast of Christmas itself. Firstly, of course, a wren had to be hunted. On Christmas day, boys would beat the hedgerows and bushes with sticks, hoping to strike lucky and kill one of the little birds. The wren was then tied to a branch of holly or ivy, or sometimes dropped inside a hollowed out turnip, ready for a procession on the following day. All of this was easier said than done, because wrens are small, furtive birds that like to hide deep in the headrow. If the wren boys didn’t manage to kill a wren by nightfall, they would hastily carve a potato or a piece of wood into a birdlike shape and cover it in feathers.
There are countless myths and folktales in Ireland explaining why the wren must be hunted and killed annually. Usually these tales focused on the wren’s untrustworthy nature, and there are many stories of how the wren betrayed the Irish people or its heroes in the past. In 1696, an English Antiquary recorded that:
A party of the Protestants would have been surprised while sleeping by the Popish Irish, were it not for several wrens that just wakened them by dancing and pecking on the drums as the enemy were approaching. For this reason the wild Irish mortally hate these birds to this day, calling them the Devil’s Servants, and killing them wherever they catch them; they teach their children to thrust them full of thorns. You will see sometimes on holidays, a whole parish running like mad men from hedge to hedge a wren-hunting.
Other versions of this story describe times when wrens saved sleeping Vikings from attack by pecking on their shields, or alerted Cromwell’s army to nearby Irish troops. In one tale, a wren betrayed Fionn Mac Cumhaill by pecking on his ear, so that he cried out in pain, revealing his hiding spot to his opponent.
There are also many religious myths explaining why the wren deserved to die. Some said that when St Paul converted to Christianity, all the evil from his soul flew inside a little wren that was passing by. The Irish Saint Mo Ling of the 6th Century cursed a wren who killed his pet fly, calling on the “children and small people” of Ireland to destroy the bird. And, in probably the best known tales today, the wren was said to have betrayed both Jesus and St Stephen before their deaths, by flying up from the bushes and singing, alerting the enemy to their whereabouts. Such a lot of betrayal for one little bird!
These patriotic and religious reasonings for the tradition often make us think that the tradition is quintessentially Irish – just another of those strange quirks in our history that set us apart as a nation. But Hunting the Wren was actually a common custom in many parts of Britain, France and the Isle of Man, suggesting that its real origins are not so simple.
On the Isle of Man, Hunting the Wren is still a very well known tradition, and according to Manx folklore it has a very different cause. It is said the island was once visited by a magical woman called Tehi Tegi, who captivated all the men of the island with her bewitching charm. The men became so entranced by Tehi Tegi that they could think of nothing and nobody else. No work was done for many weeks and soon their families were in danger of starving. Then, one day, the men followed Tehi Tegi as she walked into a deep river. With her magical gifts, she drew up a great wave, and drowned them.
Furious, the surviving Manx people pursued Tehi Tegi, and almost managed to kill her, but at the very last moment she escaped by transforming herself into a wren – so small that they couldn’t catch her as she flew away. But a spell was put on her in this form, condemning Tehi Tegi to return as a wren every year on New Year’s Day, until she could eventually be killed by human hand. Because of this, so the story goes, every man and boy on the island must hunt down the wrens between sunrise and sunset each New Year’s Day. When they manage to kill one, the wren is fixed to a pole decorated with leaves and ribbons, and marched in a procession from door to door, as the wren boys sing a rhyme in memory of the men who had been lost.
We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for Jack of the Can,
We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for everyone
The wren boys then leave a feather at each house, as a protection against drowning or shipwreck in the coming year. Afterwards, the wren was brought to a solemn burial in the churchyard, and a lively dance was held.
These door to door processions and costumed parades are a major part of the wren boys’ ritual in Ireland too. It belongs to a broader custom known as “mumming,” from a German word meaning “disguised person.” The Irish wren boys would disguise themselves by wearing animal skins and horns, dressing in women’s clothing, covering their faces with mud or soot, and making elaborate costumes out of straw, in the hopes of tricking the friends and neighbours they visited. In certain areas, particularly around Dingle in Kerry, the wren procession was very elaborate, and each of the wren boys would each have clear roles to play in the ritual. The groups were led by a Captain, a white hobby horse costume, and two fools called the amadán and the óinseach. The assembled group went from door to door throughout the community, dancing, acting and singing songs to entertain the people inside.
Mumming has been practiced since the Middle Ages, and hunting the wren was just one of many of these customs, with others taking place on feast days, wakes and weddings and seasonal occasions throughout the year, such as All Souls Day, Easter and Plough Monday in January. Mumming rituals mock and satirize our usual social norms, allowing people to briefly upset the natural order of things. For example, in some communities the churches or wealthy houses would appoint a boy Bishop, or Lord of Misrule from the lower classes, to give orders and live in luxury for the Christmas season. These topsy-turvy festivals were a cathartic release in times when the social classes were usually kept rigidly separate.
The strange straw costumes of Irish mummers have their own interesting history, which has been around since at least the late 18th Century. These costumed folk were called Straw Boys or “Soppers,” and they took part in a popular pantomime making fun of British soldiers – Sir Sop, the Knight of Straw. Sir Sop is a clownish English knight, dressed up in a helmet and armour made of straw instead of metal. He fights in a mock battle against Sean Scott, an Irish hero, played by the bravest and best looking man from the area. Sir Sop and Sean Scott fight in single combat, Sean Scott holding a wooden sword and Sir Sop with a bladder tied to a stick, until at last Sir Sop is mortally wounded. A very funny little sketch, Sir Sop was often performed by the Wren Boys to entertain their audience, as well as at other feasts, weddings and even funeral wakes throughout the year. Although the drama itself has now been mostly forgotten, you can still see the costumes, with straw boys performing annually in the wren day celebrations at Dingle, County Kerry.
The wren boys’ entertainment didn’t come for free however. They made it clear in their songs that payment was expected, and they were unlikely to leave your doorstep until the “penny to bury the wren” was safely in their pocket, or at least until they had been given some of the best drink in the house. Just as with modern day trick-or-treating, if the people at the door were deemed not to be generous enough to the wren boys, a nasty surprise would await them at the end of the night. This is reflected in the songs, which became more and more threatening as the wren boys waited:
And if you draw it of the best
I hope in Heaven your soul may rest
But if you draw it of the small
It won’t agree with the wren boys at all.
At the end of the night the wren boys would bury the wren’s body at the doorstep of a family who hadn’t shown them sufficient generosity. In doing so, they would curse the family to bad luck for the whole of the coming year – so you were best advised to cough up the cash and drink in the first place, or be faced with a nasty twelve months ahead.
The tradition of collecting money and food in the name of a bird is another relic of ancient times. From the sixth century BC in the town of Lindos, Greece, children went Swallow Singing from house to house, collecting food for the swallow’s return in spring. Swallow Singing was started it’s said, by Cleobulus of Lindos, in a time of hardship in the town, when people needed a way to ask neighbours for food and money. The song that the children sang was markedly similar to the wren songs we sing today. It describes the bird, asks for gifts and finishes with a threat of what would become of the person who didn’t grant the swallow singer’s wishes:
The Swallow, the swallow is come!
Bringing good seasons and a joyful time.
Her belly is white, her back is black.
Bring, oh bring, a cake of figs
Out of your luxurious mansion.
Shall we now go, or shall we get something?
Give us something and we’ll go; if you give nothing
… we’ll force the door
And carry it away, or the upper lintel,
Or even your wife who sits within the house.
She is but little, we shall find her light
It’s difficult to tell how the early swallow and crow singers of ancient Greece changed and developed into the wren boys of recent centuries. Niall Mac Coitir, in his wonderful book Ireland’s Birds: Myths Legends and Folklore, has suggested that the wren ceremonies may have spread around Europe with the Normans, thriving in places they conquered and settled in. Perhaps the purest forms of the wren ceremonies survived in France. At Mirabeau, hunting the wren was a battle of the sexes, where if the women caught one before the men they would mock and insult the losers, throwing mud and soot in their face. At Entraigues the wren was not killed, but presented alive to the priest on Christmas Eve, who set the bird free in the church, perhaps as a symbol of the new year. But the most elaborate ceremony took place in Carcassone on the first Sunday in December. The first person to kill a wren on this date was proclaimed King for the following year. They would lead a grand procession into town, carrying the wren on a pole wreathed in olive leaves and mistletoe. This so-called King would enjoy his crown all through the following month, collecting money from the bishop, mayor and magistrates. They visited every house in the area with their courtiers, banging drums and playing the fife loudly, and on every door they wrote in chalk “vive le roi” – Long live the King! Celebrations would finally end with a royal banquet and dance on January 6th, the feast of the epiphany.
Back in Ireland, at the end of St Stephen’s Day when the wren boys had exhausted themselves and everybody was sufficiently entertained, the money and food they had collected was pooled together for a Wren Dance, where the entire community would come together for a night of drinking, feasting and merriment. Their pockets full with money from the wren procession, the wren dance was not a time for skimping on delicious treats. John B Keane records the mouth-watering preparations in his novel, The Bodhran Makers:
Twelve bottles of Munster Cream were acquired for the Dirrabeg wren dance…. Several outsize barm bracks and a similar number of pigs’ heads would be required as basic edibles as well as a batch of baker’s bread consisting of thirteen tile loaves, freshly baked, tea, sugar, butter and mixed fruit jam because it was the least expensive. The pigs’ heads would be boiled in separate houses and brought to the house of the wren dance early in the evening.
Because of their association with drinking, begging, and pagan rituals, and because none of the money collected was going towards the church, mummering ceremonies and wren dances sometimes attracted the anger of local clergy and holy men, as John B Keane describes in his book. In 1935, the Public Dance Halls Act put an end to many of these so-called “orgies of dissipation” throughout the country for several years. This act is still in place in Ireland today, believe it or not, although several amendments and a certain amount of turning a blind eye means that we no longer live under such rigid rules.
While researching this podcast has taught me that legends and traditions are rarely as ancient as they are made out to be, surprisingly the legends of the wren, and the traditions of going from house to house in the name of a bird have much older parallels than many of our most famous tales and customs. It is a surprisingly long-lived and widespread tradition, built around a surprisingly small little subject. But despite the odds, it has survived and thrived through the generations. I think we should all be glad of this, because despite its strangeness, Hunting the Wren is in many ways the perfect Christmas tradition – bringing people closer together, giving us a reason to visit neighbours, and providing a bit of entertainment and whimsy on a dark winter night.
And for anybody afraid of the prospect of a dead wren turning up on your doorstep – don’t be. The wren boys and wren girls who continue the tradition today tend not to go to the bother and cruelty of killing a wren. They still go from house to house, but singing carols instead of making threats! Though I believe that “a penny to bury the wren” may no longer suffice – the last I heard, the going rate in Kerry was a fiver!
Thank you for listening to this Christmas episode of Unreal – the 7th and final episode of season one. I have had a wonderful time researching and making these podcasts! And for those of you who have commented, shared, and reviewed the podcast, thank you so much – it has been so lovely to hear your kind words, and I’m glad to be helping keep the roots of our folklore alive in my own small way.
I’ll be taking a break for the new year, but there are plenty more stories and traditions I want to explore, so rest assured I will be back in 2020 with a brand new season.
Unreal is researched, written and recorded by me, Ruth Atkins. You can find sources and further reading about the Wren traditions on my website Unrealpodcast.com. You can also find links to purchase or listen to the beautiful Christmas music from this episode. The opening song was The Wexford Carol by Karianne Pasma, the wren song was performed by the Chieftains, and the song you are listening to right now is Song for A Winters Night, by the Nancies. If you enjoyed this season I would love it if you could rate or review the podcast on iTunes, or simply recommend the podcast to a friend – it helps so much to spread the word. You can subscribe to the podcast on apple, stitcher spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, and you can also follow Unreal Irish Folklore on Twitter or Facebook.
Thanks again for listening and see you again in 2020 my friends – Nollaig Shona Duit agus tóg go bog é, and go néirí an bóthar leat.