Take On Nature: Wren cruelly treated but entertainingly seen as Saint Stephen's betrayer

The wren, Troglodytes troglodytes, much maligned in folklore
Stephen Colton

WATCHING a wren in pursuit of spiders work its way through what seemed like the impenetrable thorny leaves of a Berberis shrub, I thought of the bird's curious links with the festive season.

Stories, often of Christian origin, have discredited the wren with tales of betrayal and treachery, probably to undermine any vestiges of druidic reverence and pagan practice regarding the bird.

Medieval texts interpret the origin of the Irish word for the wren, ‘dreoilín' as derived from ‘dreán ‘or ‘draoi éan' meaning the ‘druid bird'. Legend, however, has it that the wren made Christ's whereabouts known to the Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane and that it betrayed St Stephen by revealing his hiding place to his killers with its rattling song.

In Irish History the bird is also harshly regarded for alerting Cromwell's forces to an imminent attack from Irish soldiers. The bird tapped on a drum, waking the sleeping sentries and thereby saving Cromwell's men. The wren is also said to have saved the forces of King William from those of King James II in the 17th century.

From this alleged treachery towards the martyred saint and others through history, comes the ancient tradition in Ireland of wren boy processions when groups of boys and men in costume hunted the wren to death on St Stephen's Day and paraded it on a holly bush from door to door through villages chanting uncomplimentary verses.

On Lá an Dreoilín or Wren Day, those groups that could boast of having a real wren on display were considered superior. Sigerson Clifford's ballad The Boys of Barr na Sráide immortalises some of these young men from the town of Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, with the words, ‘Now with cudgels stout we roamed about to hunt the dreolín/We searched for birds in every furze from Litir to Dooneen'.

As with the mumming tradition, verses varied according to county and locality, but many included the lines;

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

On St Stephen's Day, he was caught in the furze

Merry Christmas and a glad New year.

So up with the kettle down with the pan

Give us a penny to bury the wran'

Any household not giving the rhymers a treat or money was threatened with a dead wren being buried under the doorstep and certain disgrace would be brought on the occupants. Eventually at the close of the festivities, each wren was buried with a penny.

Although the barbaric practice of killing this tiny brown stubby bird with cocked tail no longer takes place, many groups still perform the ritual using toy birds and coloured ribbons to maintain the link with the past. Money collected was traditionally used to finance an evening of liquid revelry at some local hostelry followed by music and dancing. Wren boy ceremonies of varying forms were also popular in France and England.

The legend of the Celtic goddess Clíona who seduced young men to their death by the seashore also feeds neatly into this festive narrative. To protect against her deceitful trickery, a charm was discovered which helped bring about her destruction. Her only escape was to turn herself into a wren.

As punishment for her crimes she was to take the form of the bird every Christmas day and die by human hands. Hence another reason for hunting Troglodytes troglodytes around this time.

Although much less common today, there are still pockets in rural Ireland where the lively performance of the wren boys is still seen and heard. A welcome alternative to modern day packaged entertainment.

Beannachtaí an tSéasúir. Season's greetings.

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