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Folklore: need info about 'Wrenning'


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Blackcat2 16 Dec 99 - 12:08 PM
Paddy(1) 16 Dec 99 - 12:18 PM
PJ Curtis. The Burren, Co Clare, West Ireland. 16 Dec 99 - 03:40 PM
stupidbodhranplayerwhodoesn'tknowanybetter 16 Dec 99 - 05:19 PM
bigJ 16 Dec 99 - 07:30 PM
Den 16 Dec 99 - 08:12 PM
Liam's Brother 16 Dec 99 - 11:27 PM
T in Oklahoma (Okiemockbird) 16 Dec 99 - 11:56 PM
blackcat2 (at home) 17 Dec 99 - 01:09 AM
roopoo 17 Dec 99 - 04:29 AM
Blackcat2 17 Dec 99 - 08:59 AM
Liam's Brother 17 Dec 99 - 09:05 AM
Blackcat2 17 Dec 99 - 10:18 AM
Blackcat2 17 Dec 99 - 10:54 AM
InOBU 17 Dec 99 - 12:33 PM
InOBU 18 Dec 99 - 10:07 AM
Big Mick 18 Dec 99 - 10:30 AM
Conrad Bladey 18 Dec 99 - 12:21 PM
InOBU 19 Dec 99 - 11:33 AM
Blackcat2 20 Dec 99 - 09:22 AM
InOBU 20 Dec 99 - 01:07 PM
Bev Lawton 20 Dec 99 - 05:24 PM
Blackcat2 28 Dec 99 - 11:53 AM
Okiemockbird 28 Dec 99 - 12:02 PM
Okiemockbird 28 Dec 99 - 12:11 PM
Blackcat2 28 Dec 99 - 01:56 PM
Malcolm Douglas 30 Dec 99 - 11:23 PM
GUEST,Philippa 26 Jun 02 - 12:06 PM
An Pluiméir Ceolmhar 26 Jun 02 - 12:23 PM
John J 26 Jun 02 - 12:40 PM
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Nigel Parsons 27 Jun 02 - 06:20 AM
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Azizi 08 Aug 06 - 12:24 AM
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Subject: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Blackcat2
Date: 16 Dec 99 - 12:08 PM

Hi there

The Sunday after Christmas is the 26th this year and I'm leading part of the service at my church (Unitarian Universalist) - I want to explain about the traditions around the Wren boys and such, and I am looking for more info. I've already pulled out the info from the 2 previous threads on the wren song(s).

I'm really looking for the reason people believe the tradition started and/or what it means today - is it still done quite a lot, what parts of Ireland observe the tradition (I've heard primarily the south-west, but the Clancy Brothers said they used to do it as well in Co. Tipperary). Someone also said it's done on Man as well. Also, what does the wren in the holly display the boys carry with them look like in general. There's a black & white photo in the Clancy Bros. & Tommy Makem Songbook but it's not terribly clear. I'd like to have something to show the congregation (I found a nice little life-size wren ornament - nice bit of luck, that.)

Any help would be appreciated - especially stories from those of you who have personally experienced or can share your parents, etc. experiences.

Thank you in advance

pax yall


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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Paddy(1)
Date: 16 Dec 99 - 12:18 PM


I always heard that St Stephen, the first martyr of the Catholic church was successfully hiding from his pursuers in a bush but the flight of a frightened wren indicated where he was. He was subsequently captured and killed.

The tradition is to capture a wren on St Stephen's day (26th December) as a reminder of the first martyr.

The words of the song go something like:

The wren, the wren the king of all birds
St Stephen's day got caught in a furze...

Of course the "king of all birds" has nothing to do with its association to St Stephen.

Sin sceal eile (thats another story)


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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: PJ Curtis. The Burren, Co Clare, West Ireland.
Date: 16 Dec 99 - 03:40 PM

I write from the Burren in N. Co. Clare in Ireland, where the tradition of the "Wren Boys"(also called Mummers) is still carried out each ST. Stephan's Day. Its roots go back several thousand years to pre-Christian times. Its origins are tied in with the celebrating the Pagan Celtic Winter Solstice, when the Wren was killed as a symbol of the Death of winter and Birth of Summer and his 'sacrifice' was shared with the locality as the group of 'wren boys' visit each and every house and play music and, sing and dance and in some areas perform a Pantomime. In Co. Kerry the Bodhran was used only on this day. The arrival of the Wren Boys to your house on the 26th Dec is still considered to bring good luck. Long may the tradition survive. pjc

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: stupidbodhranplayerwhodoesn'tknowanybetter
Date: 16 Dec 99 - 05:19 PM

There is an interesting book I read last year called the Bodhran Makers. that portrays the wren hunt as a door-to-door busk to gather funds to hold a ceili in early January. Also, The live recording of Cathal O'Connell & Len Graham "For The Sake Of Old Decency" has a photo of 2 wren-boys playing (appropriately) flute and bodhran. It doesn't have any info but at least it could be a nice visual aid Slan agat, Rich

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: bigJ
Date: 16 Dec 99 - 07:30 PM

Back in 1989, RTE , the Irish Radio and Television company issued a three-cassette set by the author John B. Keane reading his book 'The Bodhran Makers', it may still be available. It certainly contains an excellent description of the wren boys - and the church's attitude to them. Another alternative, of course, is Frazer's 'The Golden Bough'

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Den
Date: 16 Dec 99 - 08:12 PM

It wasn't really practised where I come from in N.Ireland but I think the premise is that the boys kind of held the wren for ransom and went around the houses asking for money for its release. In later days anyway the money collected went to charity. I think that would explain the carrying of the wren usually caged. I could be way of base here but its what I seem to remember. IMO one of the most beautiful ballads to come out of Ireland, the Boys of Barr na Sraide (dont know how to do the fada in html) by Sigerson Clifford talks about the boys who hunted for the wren. I hope this was helpful.Den

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Liam's Brother
Date: 16 Dec 99 - 11:27 PM

Hi Blackcat 2!

Co. Tipperary is in the province of Munster and, therefore, is in the southwest of Ireland. In my mother's time in Co. Kerry (1920s and '30s), it was as described above by Rich.

All the best,

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: T in Oklahoma (Okiemockbird)
Date: 16 Dec 99 - 11:56 PM

See Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence, Hunting the Wren-Transformation of Bird to Symbol-A Study in Human-Animal Relationships, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1997, ISBN 0-87049-960-2

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: blackcat2 (at home)
Date: 17 Dec 99 - 01:09 AM

Hi all

Thanks for the info - even more from others would be greatly Appreciated. Esp. what the decoration that the boys carry with them tends to look like.

I'd never heard of the capturing of the wren and carrying it in a cage - is that done very often?

Also, looking at a map of Ireland, Carrick-on-Suir is in the extreme South-Eastern corner of Co. Tipperary, which to me appears to be in Central-Southern Ireland. I guess it really doesn't matter that much - just that I have heard - South-West all the time and I was imagining Kerry & Cork.



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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: roopoo
Date: 17 Dec 99 - 04:29 AM

I have a wonderful cd called Celtic Christmas, produced for a chain of UK shops, (PT7243, but originally, I think, on SayDisc CD-SDL 417)which has seasonal music from several Celtic societies (and one or two fairly well-known musicians). About wren hunting, it says that this custom used to take place in Brittany, England, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Ireland (where it still survives). It goes on to describe the ceremony and mentions the legend of St. Stephen. It also says that from the texts of the songs there is general agreement that the wren is the king of the birds and of greater importance and power than might appear. I too have heard of the bird being regarded as the symbol of Winter.

I have a marvellous book, published in 1898, which lists popular customs around the world. There are 2 pages devoted to the wren customs. The Manx legend, according to this book is different, and refers to the fate of a sea siren who, when the islanders rose up against her in anger at the deaths of so many young men, turned into a wren to escape.

"But from a higher power a decree went forth that every year on St. Stephen's day she must appear as a wren, until it pass that she perish by man's hand. For this reason the people of the Isle of Man devoted the hours between sunrise and sunset to the effort of extirpating the fairy. All wrens that showed themselves on this fatal day were pursued, pelted, fired at, and destroyed without mercy. Their feathers were preserved by fishermen as a preventative from death by shipwreck."

It continues to describe the fate of the wren and the song sung. Then it describes the Irish custom and one from Wales:

"In Ireland groups of young villagers used to bear about a holly bush adorned with ribbons and having many wrens depending from it. 'This is carried from house to house with some ceremony, the "wren-boys" chanting several verses, the burthen of which may be collected from the following lines of their song:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze.
Although he is little, his family's great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.

My box would speak if it had but a tongue,
And two or three shillings would do it no wrong;
Sing holly, sing ivy - sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.

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; etc

A small piece of money is usually bestowed on them, and the evening concludes with merrymaking with the money thus collected" (Croker: Researches in the South of Ireland, 1824, p.233)

Ditchfield in 'Old English Customs', p.32, informs us that a wren-box was sold at Christie's a few years ago which used to be carried in procession in some parts of Wales on St. Stephen's Day. It is about seven inches square, and has a glass window at one end. Into this box a wren was placed, and it was hoisted on two long poles and carried round the town by four strong men, who affected to find the burden heavy. Stopping at intervals they sang:

'Oh where are you going?' says milder to melder;
'Oh where are you going?' says the younger to the elder.
'Oh I cannot tell,' says Festel to Fose;
'We're going to the woods', says John the Red Nose.
'We're going,'etc.

'Oh what will you do there?' says milder to melder;
'Oh what will you do there?' says the younger to the elder.
'Oh I do not know,' says Festel to Fose;
'To shoot the cutty wren' says John the Red Nose.
'To shoot' etc.

And so on for eight more verses, taking the form of question and answer, as in the ballad of "Cock Robin", and describing the method of shooting the wren, cutting it up, and finally boiling it." (W.S. Walsh: Curiosities of Popular Customs, published 1898)

There are many variations on the wren hunting custom. I find it quite interesting that, in the rather long (sorry) piece I have just copied out, the author is already writing in the past tense a century ago! I remember with delight, about 4 years ago, travelling to Ireland on 1st January, and reading a half-page article in that day's copy of the Irish Independent describing participation in one of the wren hunts.

The cd I mentioned is a cracking good one. It has wren songs and tunes from Pembrokeshire, Denbighshire/Flintshire, Isle of Man and Ireland. It is interesting that the Manx song also mentions boiling the Wren. (The old book describes the ceremony of burying the bird in the Isle of Man too). The Pembrokeshire wren song is well-known: the one that starts, "Joy, health, love and peace be all here in this place. By your leave we will sing, concerning our king."

I am no expert on this custom. I just happened to have some information to hand. I hope it may be of some use, and I apologise for its length, but it's relatively early here, and I have the headache, so I'm not geared up for paraphrasing just yet!


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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Blackcat2
Date: 17 Dec 99 - 08:59 AM

Thank You!

The information is terrific. I'll have to look for that CD.

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Liam's Brother
Date: 17 Dec 99 - 09:05 AM

If you condider that there are 4 provinces in Ireland (meaning no south-central province), Co. Tipperary is in the south-west. Certainly it is big.

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Blackcat2
Date: 17 Dec 99 - 10:18 AM


Your right. It's difficult for someone who grew up in California and lived in Colorado and Florida to have a concept of size/distance in a smaller country. For instance, I live in Orlando/Central Florida and travel to Key West fairly frequently. For me it's a 7 hour drive - all withing just one of the fifty states. I have a map of Ireland on my wall sized 1 by 1.5 meters and the distances look big.

Also, my perspective tends to be towards the counties and not the traditionial provinces in Ireland and so I see it more "divided" than others may.

On offence was intended - I am just trying to get a grasp as to the commonality of the wren activities. The better I grasp that the better my presentation.

thanks & pax


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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Blackcat2
Date: 17 Dec 99 - 10:54 AM

sorry, that should read NO offence.

oof da!

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: InOBU
Date: 17 Dec 99 - 12:33 PM

Well, Here in New York, we have a Wren, Droleen Tir Na Og, the Wren of the New Land... Most of us are either from Kerry, or got involved in the Wren in Kerry as I did. Droleen Tir Na Og grew out of rowing currachs, west of Ireland ocean pulling boats, here in New York, I was apprenticed to a Kerry Boat builder. We began our wren to raise money for the currach club, and now it goes to Irish Women's Football. The wren is not held captive,
The bugger's dead.
In the old days, the Wren celebrants would go into the hills above the town and kill a wren with a cudgel and collect money to bury the wren...
Mrs. (fill in the blank... ) is a very nice woman
She's given us tuppence to bury the Wren
In the old old days, it was one of the human inhabitants of the town who was killed in midwinter in order to insure the coming of spring, wrens were more expendable in the Christian times.
There are a number of ingredients for a proper Wren.
1. Straw boys. Dressed in skirts, capes and conical hats of woven barley, looking like a pointed haycock, they do most of the best dancing..
2. The King and Queen of the wren
3. The oncha and amidaun (excuse the spelling os Gaelige agus os Berla - gorra leshcail). The bitchy woman and the foolish man. 4. Most important the Hobby Horse, a fellow dressed in a horse costume with flapping lips on the head, who has a sharp sense of humor and can disguise his voice. His job is to insult everyone, so they are better neighbors during the year, and cough up lots of gelt to bury the wren.
On an early DeDannan album they play two wren tunes on fifes, which are associated with the Green and Gold wren in Dingle. There is also a book I ve seen, hard to find I bet, which gives great detail about the Green and Gold Wren. It was published in the seventies, I believe, and may be called the Green and the Gold.
Happy Saint Stevens to all, and good luck on the Wren
Larry Otway

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: InOBU
Date: 18 Dec 99 - 10:07 AM

Saint Stevens night, about fifteen years ago, the Droleen Tir Na Og, had just turned the corner onto 207th street in Inwood (uptown Manhattan) when we ran into an elderly lady in her eighties at least. She looked shocked for an instant, then began to clap her hands and do a Wren jig step. She hadn't seen a Wren since she was a young girl and left the west of Ireland.
A note on the Droleen (wren) Most Wrens - all I know of, don't kill the bird these days but instead rely on a fake one. It is carried in a small cage of woven withies, hung from a pole.
The wren the wren the king of all birds
on midwinter day was caught in a furze
so come Mrs Ryan and be a good friend,
and give us a tuppence to bury the wren
Nollag maith agut

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Big Mick
Date: 18 Dec 99 - 10:30 AM

Jazus, but I finally get to this thread, get set to launch into a full fledged lecture on the wren....................and Mr. Otway has done a superb job already. Maith thú féin, a mháistir!!!!!!! My Grandmother loved this, and would do Wren steps. Much easier on the wee birds these days..........LOL

Big Mick

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Conrad Bladey
Date: 18 Dec 99 - 12:21 PM

Hope this is of help- note the lyrics within! It can all be found here with a whole load of other Irish Christmas stuff!

Conrad Bladey

Saint Stephen's Day

All because of a little wren who betrayed the presence of the hiding St. Stephen who was caught and executed!

(A. k. a. "day for hunting the wren")

1. Account of 1840 describes boys stalking and killing a "tiny wren" prior to Christmas.

2. The fight is loud with all sorts of things thrown at the small bird.

3. A great "hubbub" is created.

4. On St. Stephen's day December 26 the bodies of several wrens are borne on a huge holly bush raised up on a pole. The greater the number of the birds the better.

5. The bush is carried by a number of young boys including a few older ones.

6. The boys take the bush and birds house to house where they sing the Wren song. Between houses the boys roar and shout.

7. It is noted that the song varies and is a reflection of the skill of the leader of the party.

8. One example:

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's day was cot in the furze
Although he is little his family's grate,
Put yer hand in yer pocket and give us a trate.
Sing holly, sing ivy-sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop ust to drink it would drown melancholy
And if you dhraw it ov the best,
I hope in heven yer sowl will rest,
But if you dhraw it ov the small
It won't agree wid de wran boys at all

9. Money was collected by the boys and used for drinking the entire evening away.

10. Patrick Kennedy wrote that the wren boys ranked many degrees under the Mayboys and mummers.

11. Irish Gaelic for Wren= dhruleen.

12. Sometimes a live wren was used and was fastened to a twig or branch and carried around accompanied by dance and fife.

13. After the wren son it was customary to dance around the "bouchal na dhruleen"(the wren boy) who carried the bush shaking it.

14. It is noted that colored ribbons are also attached to the holly branch

15. Another Wren Song:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen's day was caught in the furze;
Though is body is small, his family is great,
So, if you please, your honour, give us a treat.
On Christmas Day I turned a spit;
I burned my finger; I feel it yet,
Up with the kettle, and down with the pan:
Give us some money to bury the wren.

16. In some instances the boys carry toy-birds around on a decorated bier. They themselves wearing ribbons and coloured pieces of cloth pinned to their clothes.

17. If the wren boys are not treated well they might bury their wren outside the house door. That will bring you bad luck for a year.

18. At the end of the day each wren is buried with a penny.

19. You only need reward the first group of boys for good luck.

20. More recent accounts note that sometimes the birds are absent from the decorated bushes and that both girls and boys take part.

21. Fancy dresses for men imitating women and masked faces are noted.

22. Instruments played include the melodeon or mouth organ. Modern dances were also noted.

23. Another wren song:

The wran, the wran the king of all birds
On St. Stephen's day, was caught in the furze
And though he is little his family is great
So rise up landlady, and give us a treat
Up with the kettle and on with the pan;
Mr. So-and-so is a gentleman
We hoosed her up, we hoosed her down,
We hoosed her into so-and so town
We dipped her wing in a barrel of beer
Then rise up landlady and give us good cheer,
Up with the kettle, on with the pan
Give us an answer and let us be gone.
Give us something new, give us something old.
Be it only silver or copper or gold
It's money we want; it's money we crave;
If you don't give us money we'll bring you to the grave.
So up with the kettle and on with the pan
For Mr. So-and-so is a gentleman

24. The custom is not known in the northern part of Ulster, from Donegal to Antrim.

25. In Munster the boys are headed by a Captain who dresses in military style and carries a sword. A jester or amad/an who carries a bladder on a stick or a female jester the /oinseach (a boy dressed as a woman) also accompany the procession.

26. Two of the boys in a procession at Dingle dress decorating their heads and shoulders with straw. Their masks have single eye holes and they carry bladders on sticks which they use to clear the way. Others carry flags others play drums.

27. Also the Dingle ceremony includes a mock battle between sir Sop and Sean Scott one team with bladders the other with swords.

28. Sometimes the boys ride a l/air bh/ain (white mare) a hobby horse. Made with wooden frame and covered with a white sheet and including a carved head and legs.

29. The wren boys are often related to mummers.

30. The custom is one associated with the rabble and lower classes. The hunt of birds was forbidden in cork in 1845.

31. As it is currently practiced it is usually done so with dignity and decorum. The wren parties are hosted by the boys and feed many.

32. Often St. Stephens's day is viewed as a fast day to balance the eating of the Christmas feasting. It is also observed as a day for games.

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: InOBU
Date: 19 Dec 99 - 11:33 AM

Great post, reminded me of the old drums in Dingle, I had completely forgoten after several decades! There were a couple of old military drums, over a hundered years old that the Green and Gold wren used. There are more and more wrens starting up in New York, and I hope this is a tradition that is on a great comeback. One year, about fifteen years ago, as we were weaving the strawboy costumes in New York, the Dingle wren was just winding down, so we called up and over the phone played a couple of tunes together, fifes in New York and Ireland. Also, thanks for the spelling corrections, I always appreciate corrections in my spelling in irish and english (see dyslexic mudcatter post... )
Nollage maith agut

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Blackcat2
Date: 20 Dec 99 - 09:22 AM

Tank you all so much! It's really helped me tremendously and I'll be sure to give Mudcat a plug during the service. Also, several people have mentioned about the boys dressing in odd ways. Any specifics at all on that? I don't know wether I would dress the part or not, but if you have any recollections, I'd love to hear them.

Once again, thank you

Pax, Blackcat2

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: InOBU
Date: 20 Dec 99 - 01:07 PM

Cross dressing is a part of many rural holiday and polical upheaval traditions. I believe it was LeRoy Ladurie who wrote that it stemed from the belief among some men that women were not creatures of lodgic, so by dressing as a woman, it freed the man to act as a force of nature, it was especialy fearful to landlords when peasents dressed as women approached to due some act of redistibutive violence (after Monty Pythons Mrs Non Rabbit, I think the effect has been dulled however) But some in the Wren do cross dress, and wether a modern eliment or not, I dont know, but I have seen women dress as men, though I have not seen reference to that as traditional in writing, where men dressed as women is traditional. The other odd dress you speak of, may be straw boys - also seen during peasent uprisings, like the White boy movement, I understand. Straw boy costuems are made by plaiting barley first into a skirt, with some plaited into a belt holding long straws that cover down to the ankles from the waist - dence enough to be fully covering the figure. Then a cape made the same way. Then a hat, woven around wire form, in a trianle, with a spray of straw at the top, also thick enough that you cant see the face... If you send an email adress I can send a drawing... Im at
All the best

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Bev Lawton
Date: 20 Dec 99 - 05:24 PM

This tradition is alive and well in Suffolk, England. The last 'Ancient' recorded occurance was in the Suffolk village of Middleton. Five years ago a local Molly Dance group revived the tradition. The local pub The Middleton Bell is a well used session pub for traditional music and a watering hole for the Molly Group "Old Glory". Molly dancing in Suffolk was always performed by men with blacked out faces - usually local agricultural workers coercing a pittance to supplement their low wages during the winter months Nov - Dec ending on St. Stephen's Day 26th December. They still feature a man dressed as a woman - and the Wren is still carried aloft on a pole within a wreath of Holly. This is called the "Cutty Wren" ceromony in Suffolk and you are welcome to join us this year at The Middleton Bell, Suffolk, UK for the Cutty Wren, piss-up, music and dancing!! If you want resources on Wrens then type : Trogledytes Trogledytes into a search engine and all will be revealed (latin name for the Wren) A nice site for Winter Wren stamps is :

Bev Lawton

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Blackcat2
Date: 28 Dec 99 - 11:53 AM

Greetings all.

Thank you for the info - here's what I wrote for the service - I also had a holly bush decorated with ribbons and a wren (ceramic) on top of a staff and sang a version of the "Wren Song" and told the story of how the wren got to be the king of all birds (this I told to the kids in the special part of the service devoted to them) ______________

Before dawn, on this, the day after Christmas, St. Stephens Day, young boys gather in small groups all over the South West of Ireland. They are known as the Wren Boys and their activities on this day are as dramatic as they are ancient. They gather together and go into the hills above town and kill or capture a wee bird called the wren. The Wren Boys place the little bird on a holly bush that is festooned with ribbons and placed on the top of a pole. They take the holly bush from house to house in their town and on each doorstep sing "The Wren Song." Their purpose is to collect money for the wren's wake and burial. For the most part, they travel at a frantic pace - singing the song as quickly as possible to each household so that they may collect as much money as they can. To give the Wren Boys a bit of coin is to ensure good luck for the house in the upcoming year. Much like trick or treating, the Wrenning is eagerly looked forward to by the boys. The South West has always been a poor area, and in the past Christmas morning rarely brought presents, while the fun, camaraderie and pennies collected by the Wren Boys afforded them a true celebration.

It's a tradition that has been followed for hundreds of years and is connected to an element of the ancient practice of regicide - sacrificing the king to ensure the return of the Sun at Yuletide. Killing the wren satisfies this because in Celtic mythology, the wren is known as the king of all birds. The Wren Boys, in following this ancient tradition, continue an element of the human experience that celebrates the memory or their, and likewise, our ancestors.

Apart from the fact that the activities of the Wren Boys happened earlier today, why am I telling you this? Well, like many of us, instead of inheriting traditions from my parents and engaging in community rituals, I grew up learning that activities such as those in which the Wren Boys participate were quaint and backward. In adulthood, I have learned that these traditions are actually important for a myriad of reasons. They build community; they give everyone a position and task within the community; they remind people of the past and help them to look forward to the future. That's why I study the past. It's also one of the reasons I attend this church. For to find tradition, looking backward is not a requirement. Looking to the future and creating your own traditions is just as good. So now, please join me in one of our favorite traditions - the lighting of the chalice. In the light of truth, and in the warmth of love, we gather to seek, to sustain and to share. _____________

thanks again everyone.


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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Okiemockbird
Date: 28 Dec 99 - 12:02 PM

I prefer to be skeptical of claims of deep antiquity for this custom. In antiquity it was considered unlucky and cowardly to kill the wren. The wrenning custom might be an ancient example of ritual topsy-turvyness. Or it might be much more recent, dating from a time that the old taboo had weakened. Or it might have no connection with the old prohibition at all. Killing or capturing a bird was simply one possible sport to engage in in a festival day, the wren being chosen because it was one of the birds that didn't migrate; taking it house-to-house was simply one possible way of getting money or food.


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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Okiemockbird
Date: 28 Dec 99 - 12:11 PM last proposal above is the one I think most likely: that wrenning originated as a set of opportunistic merrymaking improvisations with no connection to any ancient religion.


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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Blackcat2
Date: 28 Dec 99 - 01:56 PM

You might be correct, but unfortunately there is little to go on when it comes to evidence. I realize some of the things I said were supposition but the information was from fellow Mudcatters as well as knowledge gained from years of study about similar practices worldwide.

An activity that is practiced by many people can have many different reasons why it occurs. Clearly the fact that there are Chirstian as well as Pagan aspects of the ritual shows that.


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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Malcolm Douglas
Date: 30 Dec 99 - 11:23 PM

My friend Carmel tells me that, by the '60s, the Wren "boys" were still going out in the Tralee area, but there was no longer a specific song associated with the custom. They would sing whatever came to mind; typically "Tom Dooley" and "Walk Tall"! (The latter a big hit over here for Val Doonican). It was considered a "luck visit", and participants expected to be given money or sweets, which is what usually happened; though sometimes they just got stones thrown at them. They wore limited disguise, usually a piece of net curtain over the face. I put "boys" in parentheses because it was by no means a single-sex thing, by then at any rate. Carmel's father remembered the wren song, and times when a real wren was taken round, impaled on a stick; but that was in the early years of the century.


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Subject: Room to Rhyme - Research in Ireland
From: GUEST,Philippa
Date: 26 Jun 02 - 12:06 PM

The Folklore Dept. of University College Dublin, in conjunction with the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and the University of Ulster has a three-year research project called 'Room to Rhyme'. The Aughnakillymaude Community Mummers of County Fermanagh are also associated with the project. While wrenning is but a small aspect of the research, I thought that this thread has more of an Irish focus than the several threads in which mumming is discussed. I think the researchers want to discuss Christmas mumming and related customs in relation only to Ireland. Larry, you might want to get in touch and see if they have an interest in the customs being retained by Irish people abroad.

I will quote now from the preface to the questionnaire, which is available in both English and Irish from 'Room to Rhyme', Dept. of Irish Folklore at University College, Belfield, Dublin 4. tel: (giving international code) +353 1 7167178, fax: +353 1 7161144. e-mail: :

" The Mummers or Christmas Rhymers
"Mumming has been a feature of life in various parts of Ireland for centuries and the Christmas Mummers ('Christmas rhymers' of 'Hogmanay men' as they were also known) were once a familiar sight in many places. Christmas Mummers, Wren Boys and, to a lesser extent, Biddy Boys were particuarly long-lived phenomena in communities distributed along the border from Dundalk to Sligo and from Sligo to Derry, across Ulster, north Leinster and north Connacht. The tradition is well remebered in many areas and persists until the present day in certain loclities. This questionnaire seeks to document past and present-day expressions of that tradition.

...We wish to enlist your help in gathering reliable local information about different aspects of mumming [by answering specific questions both about the mummers groups and about the nature of the performance]... ...Photographs, posters or any documentation and objects relating to mumming will be gratefully received, and copied and returned if so required. ..."

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: An Pluiméir Ceolmhar
Date: 26 Jun 02 - 12:23 PM

Thanks, PJ for confirming that the bodhrán used to be used only by the wren boys.

I understood this to be the case from something which my (Kerry-born) Irish teacher told us in school years ago when JB Keane's "Sive" first unleashed the bodhrán on an unsuspecting Dublin, but never had any corroboration until now.

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: John J
Date: 26 Jun 02 - 12:40 PM

I used to dance for a Morris side in England about 25 years ago. Every Christmas time (Boxing Day?) the side would go out 'Hunting the Wren'. All we really did was go for a walk, end up in a pub and dring too much beer. I often wondered what it was all about.


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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: An Pluiméir Ceolmhar
Date: 26 Jun 02 - 04:50 PM

Okie, as far as i remember, the teacher referred to in my previous post told us that there wasn't a real wren involved at all, but the wren boys carried an empty mock nest on top of a pole. But I'm trying to remember something I was told in the early 1960s, so don't take this as purporting to be authoritative.

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Nigel Parsons
Date: 27 Jun 02 - 06:20 AM

A little more info may be found in the DTStudy Cutty Wren

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Snuffy
Date: 27 Jun 02 - 08:39 AM

I recall reading a long time ago that, although Mummer's plays etc were quite widespread in Ireland, they were always in English, and that there is no recorded instance of a traditional play done in the Irish language.

Is this true, or wishful thinking from someone with an agenda?

WassaiL! V

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
Date: 27 Jun 02 - 10:19 AM

Poor unfortunate wrens aren't killed any more.

By the way, the wren is the "king of all birds" because it's the tiiest but most intelligent: in a story the birds have a contest to see which can fly highest, to choose their king, and the wren conceals itself in the feathers of the eagle's back. When the eagle flies highest and screams in triumph, out comes the wren and says that it's higher, and therefore it's chosen as the king. The moral being that intelligence is more kingly - of more use to the community, I suppose - than sheer strength.

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Malcolm Douglas
Date: 27 Jun 02 - 10:31 AM

That's certainly the best-known story; I've quoted it here myself, though not in this particular thread. Further to Snuffy's comments:

The Traditional Drama Research Group (University of Sheffield) have probably the best online central resource for the study of Folk Drama in general:

English Folk Play Research Home Page (that is, English Language; includes Ireland and other countries).

Two useful references relevant to Wren customs in Ireland can be seen at:

Hunting the Wren on the Dingle Peninsula
Irish Folk Drama: Ruarí Ó Caomhanach

From a cursory reading, Caomhanach seems to consider hunting the wren in its Irish context only, whereas the custom was formerly, in various forms, practised throughout the British Isles.

Although the Wren Boys are sometimes described as Mummers, the mumming tradition proper in Ireland does seem to be conducted always in English; a number of 19th century texts, all apparently deriving from chapbooks, can be seen at the first site indicated above. Interestingly, some versions have been changed so that it is St. George who is killed and resurrected.

The Mummers' Play in Ireland is clearly an import, but there will have been no shortage of indigenous (and perhaps analogous) seasonal customs in the Gaelic language, doubtless including earlier forms of the Wren custom. Not my field, though, so I don't know if there are extant examples. By the time antiquarians started to take an interest in rural customs, the English language was becoming quite widespread.

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Nigel Parsons
Date: 27 Jun 02 - 10:45 AM

Guest JTT: I've already listed that tale at DTStudy Cutty Wren, but was the tale merely used as an explanation of the 'apparent' gold crown on a goldcrest, when compared to a normal wren ?

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Azizi
Date: 08 Aug 06 - 12:24 AM

Thanks for an interesting read. I didn't know about this custom before reading this thread.

And JTT, that story about the wren sounds like an African folktale I've read. I'll have to track it down and see what ethnic group/country. It may not have been about a wren, but the story with its moral sure sounds familiar to me.

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Big Al Whittle
Date: 27 Aug 07 - 05:16 AM


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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: GUEST,Mary Brennan
Date: 27 Aug 07 - 06:59 AM

I've got a CD by a band called 'Parson's Hat' called 'Cutty Wren'.

In the sleeve notes, it says: "This verson comes from rural England. A darkly humoured song. 'Cutty' means small, as in 'Cutty Sark', a small shirt. There are many versions of this song, and as many titles. The yearly ceremonial sacrifice of the bird is a left-over from the days of animal worship. On the Isle of Man, sacrifice of the bird ensured crop fertility - bence the song's notion of feeding a whole village. Scots Highlanders believed the wren carried a drop of God's blook. Wren boys come out in Ireland on St Stephen's Day, Decemeber 26th, singing and exacting booze or coin from pub to pub. Robert Graves held that the wren was the 'soul of the Oak, a bird cherished by the Druids."

The song itself is: "Trad. Arr. Johnston/Ni Chathain/Wilkins/Sutton" It's the "Milder to Mogger" song that some of you will know. I believe Martin Carthy has sung it - but I could be wrong. I'll submit the words, if anyone wants them.

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Subject: RE: need info about 'Wrenning'
From: Jim Dixon
Date: 21 Dec 09 - 05:05 PM

This story puts the practice of wrenning in a fictional, but interesting, context:

From a story "The Half Sir" in Tales of the Munster Festivals, Volume 1, by Gerald Griffin (London: Saunders and Otley, 1827), page 217ff:

In a few minutes they [the wren-boys] had marshalled themselves before the house (a ruined building, the greater number of the windows of which were broken, stuffed with newspapers, pieces of blackened board, and old clothes), and set up a new stave of their traditional anthem.
"Last Christmass-day I turn'd the spit,
I burn'd my finger—(I feel it yet)—
A cock-sparrow flew over the table,
The dish began to fight with the ladle—
The spit got up like a naked man,
And swore he'd fight with the dripping-pan;
The pan got up and cock'd his tail,
And swore he'd send them all to jail!"
The merry-makers, however, did not receive so ready a welcome at Castle-Hamond as they had done at most other houses. The chorus died away in perfect silence, and the expectant eyes of the singers glanced from casement to casement for several minutes, but no one appeared. Again they raised their voices, and were commencing—
"The Wran!—the——"
—when a bundle of newspapers was withdrawn from a broken pane, and in their place a head and arm made their appearance. It was a hatchet-face, with a pair of peeping pig's-eyes set close (like a fish's) on either side—the mouth half open, an expression of mingled wonder and curiosity depicted on the features—and a brown strait-haired wig, which time had reduced to a baldness almost as great as that of the head which it covered, shooting down on each side, like a bunch of rushes, toward the shoulders.
  "Good morrow, Mr. Remmy," said the young man who had advocated the title of the proprietor of Castle Hamond to the homage of the Wren—"we're come to pay our compliments to the master."
  "Whisht! whisht! dear boys!" exclaimed the head, while the arm and hand were -waved toward them in a cautionary manner.
  "Poh, what whisht? Let him give us something like a gentleman, and we'll whisht as much as he pleases."
  "Are ye tired o' ye'r lives? He's like a madman all night. There's nothen for ye."
  "D'ye hear what he says, as if it was to a beggarman he'd be talken? Go along in—take your head out o' that, Remmy, if you love it. Nothen for us!—Take your head out o' that, again! if you haven't a mind to lave it after you—and no great prize 'twould be to the man that would get it in lose after you, either."
  "It may be a very bad one," said Remmy O'Lone, "and an ill-looking one enough may be, but I'd look a dale droller widout it for all that."
  "Well, an' are we to get nothen for the Wran? Is that the way of it? Come, boys, one groan for the old miser—"
  "Whisht! agin! O boys, for shame! Well, aisy a while and I'll see what's to be done. But don't make a noise for your lives, for he didn't lave his room yet."
  Remmy withdrew his head from the window, replaced the newspapers, and walked in a meditative way along a dark flagged hall leading to many of the principal sleeping chambers of the old mansion. He paused near one of the doors, and after many gestures of agitation and distress, he tapped softly with the knuckle of his forefinger upon the centre pannel, bending his ear toward the key-hole to ascertain as much as possible of the effect which his intrusion produced.
  "Who's there?" was asked in a tone of some vexation.
  "Are you awake, sir?" said Remmy, in a soft and conciliating accent, such as a man might use in making acquaintance with a fierce mastiff.
  "If I were asleep, do you think I'd ask the question, Remmy?"
  "Wisha then, no, surely, sir," said the man, "I dun know what come over me to ask my question."
  "Well, what's the matter now?"
  "Come to see you they are, sir."
  "Who, man?" was asked in some little alarm.
  "The Wren-boys, sir."
  "The Wren-boys!"
  "Yes, sir, in regard o' Saint Stephen."
  "The Wren-boys come to see me in regard of Saint Stephen!" was repeated in a slow and bewildered tone.
  At the same time the party without, a little impatient at Remmy's delay, recommenced their noisy harmony—
"The Wran—the Wran, the king of all birds
Saint Stephen's day was caught in the furze—
Although he's little——"
The strange disturbance seemed to aggravate the wrath of the secluded tenant of the chamber——"What's all this din, you ruffian?" he said to Remmy in a furious tone.
  "Themselves that's singen it, sir,"
  "What? who are they, sir?"
  "The Wran-boys."
  "The Wren-boys again! Who are the Wrenboys? what the plague do they come clattering their old pans and kettles here for? What do they want, Remmy?"
  "Money I believe, sir, and liquor."
  "Money and liquor! From whom, pray?"
  "E'then from your honour—sure 'tisn't from the likes o' me they'd be expecten it?"
  "Why, are they creditors of ours, Remmy?"
  "O not they, sir, one of 'em—sure yourself knows we owe no money. But they want a little by way of a compliment in regard o' Saint Stephen."
  "Saint Stephen! Why, what the mischief, I ask you again, have I to do with Saint Stephen?"
  "Nothen, sure, sir, only this being his day, whin all the boys o' the place go about that way, with the wran, the king of all birds, sir, as they say, (bekays wanst when all the birds wanted to choose a king, and they said they'd have the bird that would fly highest, the aigle flew higher than any of 'em, till at last whin he couldn't fly an inch higher, a little rogue of a wran that was a-hide under his wing, took a fly above him a piece and was crowned king of the aigle an' all, sir), tied in the middle o' the holly that way, you see, sir, by the leg, that is. An old custom, sir. They hunted it this mornen, and stoned it with black-thorn sticks in regard o' Saint Stephen. That's because he was stoned be the Turks himself, sir, there's a great while there sence. With streamers and ribbins flyen about it. Be the leg they tie it in the middle o' the bush within. An' they sing that song that way for the gentlemen to give them a trate, as it were, 'Get up, ould 'oman, an' give uz a trate,' —or, 'get up—fair ladies—' —or— 'we hope your honour,' as the case may be, all in regard o' Saint Stephen. And they dressed out in ribbins, with music, an' things. Stoned be the Turks, he was, Saint Stephen, long ago. Bad manners to 'em (an' sure where's the good o' wishen 'em what they have before?) wherever they are, for so doen. 'Iss indeed, sir."
  "So I am to understand from you that a number of young men come to demand money from me, because they got up this morning and hunted a little wren, tied it in the middle of a holly-bush, and stuck a parcel of ribands on the boughs. Is that the utmost extent of their claim on me?"
  "O then, Lord help uz!" said Remmy, greatly perplexed—"if one was to go to the rights o' the matter, that way, sarrow a call more have they to you, I b'lieve, sir."
  "Well, then, let those gentlemen take their departure as soon as they please. They shall seek their reward elsewhere, for it is an exploit which I am incapable of appreciating."
  "O sir, sure you wouldn't send them away without any thing, to disgrace us?"
  "Go along, sir, and do as you are directed."
  "Well, well, to be sure, see what this is," Remmy O'Lone muttered in great distress, as he paced reluctantly along the hall, revolving in his mind the manner in which he should most palatably announce this disagreeable intelligence to the crowd without. They were preparing to renew the chorus when he opened the massive hall-door, and proceeded to address them. As his master had not permitted him to gratify his auditors in the substantial way, Remmy thought the least he might do, was to take what liberties he pleased with the form and language of the refusal.
  "Boys," said he, "Mr. Hamond is in bed, sick, an' he desired me to tell ye that he was very, very sorry intirely that he had nothen to give ye. He desired his compliments, an' he's very sorry intirely."
  "I knew he was a main wretch!" exclaimed the wren-boy—"He a Cromwaylian*—he Bag-an'-Bun!** Bag an' baggage! O, 'pon my word, he's a great neger."
  "Houl your tongue, I tell you, Terry Lenigan," said Remmy. "Don't anger me, I'd advise you."
  "Remmy, would you answer one question," said Terry, "an' we'll be off. Who is it milks Mr. Hamond's cows?"
  To understand the point of this query, it is necessary the reader should be informed that, in consequence of Mr. Hamond's allowing no dairy woman a place in his establishment, which was solely composed of Remmy and his old mother, a false and invidious report had been circulated that the office alluded to in the last speech (which in Ireland is looked upon as exclusively womanish and unworthy of the dignity of man), was fulfilled by no less a personage than the redoubtable Remmy O'Lone himself. This disgraceful charge, though frequently and indignantly rebutted, was the more maliciously persevered in, as it was found to answer its chief object not the less effectively—that of irritating the temper of its subject, and furnishing the spectators with what Hobbes would call a spectacle exceedingly gratifying to their vanity—a man in a state of comically passionate excitation. It lost nothing of its usual force by its total unexpectedness at the present moment.
  Remmy plunged forward toward the speaker, then remained fixed for a few moments in an attitude minative of offence—the consummation of his desires being checked by a rapid and almost involuntary reflection on the little glory he would be likely to reap from an engagement in which the odds would be so awfully against him. Then suddenly recollecting himself, he stood erect, putting his little finger knuckle between his lips, and blew a whistle so shrill and so loud, that the echoes of the broken hills which surrounded the castle,—and in the fine phrase of the Spanish poet, stood aloft in their giant stature, ruffling their foreheads against the morning sun,*** returned the unwonted sounds in an hundred varied tones. This was not the response, however, which Remmy ambitioned, so much as the yelling of a leash of beagles, who presently made their appearance, though not in time to do any considerable damage amongst the aggressors, who retreated in double quick time, making such a din as no power of language that the writer possesses could possibly convey to the reader.

* A descendant of those who came over with Cromwell.
** The descendants of those who landed at Bag-and-Bun with Richard Fitzstephens, the first British invader of Ireland.—Thus the adage—
"At the creek of Bagganbun,
Ireland was ylost and wonne."
***——Este Monte eminente
Que arruga al Sol en seno de su frente.

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