Carol Ann Duffy's Christmas poem this year, The Wren-Boys has sparked much interest in the old custom of 'going on the Wren'. Most Google searches state that it is an obsolete custom, but in Kerry where I grew up (and some other parts of rural Ireland) it is very much alive.
Like many other Irish celebrations, it is one based on layers upon layers of custom...
Nowadays, The Wren is celebrated on St Stephen's Day (the feast day of first Christian martyr) but the tradition has no links with St Stephen and most likely was originally celebrated on the Solstice (only a few days earlier after all). In fact, the Wren was venerated in Irish mythology as a wise and clever bird who outsmarted the Eagle to be named King of the birds. The story goes that the birds decided to have a competition to elect a king. The winner was to be the bird who flew highest and the Eagle was confident of winning. However, the clever little Wren perched on the Eagle's back and when the Eagle reached the highest point, the Wren came out of hiding and flew higher.
In Celtic mythology, the wren was also the symbol of the old year. The tradition of chasing and killing a wren then parading it round the locality while singing and dancing, collecting money for its burial, makes sense in this context.
This association with older mythology (in fact, the Irish word for wren dreolín suggests an association with Druidic practice, the name meaning 'druid's bird') was a troubling one in Christian times. So, it is thought that, in order to clamp down on the custom, new stories were invented including one that St. Stephen, hiding from his enemies in a bush, was betrayed by a chattering wren. The wren, like St. Stephen, should be hunted down and stoned to death. This and other stories attempted to make the wren an object of scorn versus veneration. The result is a hodge-podge that makes little sense:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren.
In later years bunches of feathers and pretend birds were attached to poles with ribbons instead of an actual bird, which were then carried round the locality accompanied by singers asking for 'a penny for the Wren' (though rumors persisted that the Wren boys would return in the night and bury a dead wren in the garden of anyone who was less than generous - something which would bring them bad luck for the coming year). The money collected would be pooled to fund a party traditionally called a join.
When we 'went on the Wren' we collected money not for a party but for a local youth club. What interests me is how much of a carnival it was, and the strong emphasis on disguise (something not really mentioned in Google searches). There was a strong tradition of men dressing as women and many wearing night clothes.
It was also traditional to 'go on the wren' in the next town or village along rather than your own and even then we all had to agree to pretend to be from somewhere else (we pretended to be from Toornafolla).
Setting out from O'Mahony's house, Castleisland, Co Kerry
On the Wren, Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick, 1985