Christmas is a wonderful time of year for anyone with an interest in tradition and its invention, its upkeep, and its transformation. There are wonderful variations in food, music, drink and other aspects of celebrating the darkest period of the year before the lead-in to spring. British Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has just published a Christmas poem: The Wren-Boys, which draws on an old tradition of hunting wrens on the day after Christmas: St.Stephen’s Day in Ireland and Boxing Day in Britain.
This news delighted me, as I had done some work during the week on the Wren Boys and the song sung on St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland with some of my TEFL students during the week.
The tradition of the wren is still carried on in some parts of Ireland although these days it seems it is more organised performance than it is pure tradition, and likely, this has been the case since probably the middle of the twentieth century.
In the tradition groups of boys hunt and kill wren, placing it atop a poll and then go seeking money for the burial of the wren and for themselves. In Duffy’s poem the origins of why this is done is alluded to:
And here’s the craic: that the little bird
had betrayed a saint with its song,
or stolen a ride on an eagle’s back
to fly highest; traitor and cheat.
Boys or men dress in motley, with blackened faces, or in straw costumes covering body and head would dance and sing, beg money, food or drink for their success in avenging the bird’s supposed betrayal. An old tradition, it was not without its critics. In Kerry, I found an instance of one local priest who wished to suppress the practice in the 19th century. While in early twentieth century, some found the killing of the bird a cruelty:
Perhaps one of the best aspects of the tradition is that verses sung as the Wren Boys make their way varies from place to place and over time. Some idea of the words sung in South Kilkenny come to us from this short extract in the 1930s in the Munster Express:
One group who made the tradition famous, The Clancy Brothers, came from Carrick-On-Suir, a place where the tradition of the wren is still popular and was taken in deadly serious earnest in the 1930s. Consider this court case for example:
The tradition has moved from the streets and country lanes and has been recorded in several versions since the emergence of the Irish folk revival in the 1960s. Here’s a link to a performance by the Clancy’s of the song, with a short introduction from them on the tradition. Here’s a different version taken from The Chieftains’ album The Bells of Dublin. And, just today, as Micheál Ó’Muirchearthaigh was speaking with Miriam O’Callaghan on her radio show, he made mention of the tradition in his reminscences of Dingle Christmases in his childhood. You can listen to that here. The tradition of the wren – or at least the memory of it – unlike the poor bird itself come Stephens’ Day, doesn’t appear to be in mortal danger.
Hope you have a Merry Christmas!