|Location||Throughout Ireland but notably in Kerry, Limerick, Dublin and Galway|
|Categories||Performing arts, Social practices, Rituals and festive events, Traditional craftsmanship, Oral traditions and expressions, including language, Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe|
|Keywords||Wren, Performance, Ritual, Crafts, Music|
|Contact organisation||Stradbally Wren, Co Kerry|
Lá an Dreoilín/Wren’s Day takes place on St. Stephen’s Day each year (December 26th).
Lá an Dreoilín/Wren’s Day traditionally centres around the capturing of a wren (often pronounced as ‘wran’) which is said to bring luck. A group of people dressed in garbs made of straw, including headwear that is woven into a bellshape, play drums and traditional music and march through the streets of a town singing the traditional song; ‘The wren, the wren, the king of all birds on St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the Furs’. This act is repeated throughout the town as locals, visitors and tourists contribute to the Wren’s collection from their homes or in public houses.
Lá an Dreoilín/Wren’s Day is celebrated in locations throughout Ireland, yet it is most prominent in the west of the country, in pockets of Limerick county and Kerry, as well as parts of Dublin and Galway.
The intangibility of this event lies in its merging of ancient and modern cultures and traditions from which has emerged a celebration that is as unique as it is diverse; incorporating music, song, dance, costume, parade, visual art, community collective participation and charitable goodwill.
The history of Lá an Dreoilín/Wren’s Day is so old that it is difficult to pinpoint with accuracy when exactly it began. It first emerged in pagan times and has been passed down through so many generations that some aspects of the day are difficult to define in terms of origin, but influences have come from the traditions of various belief systems and cultures with variations of the Wren’s Day found in other European countries including the south of France and Galicia in Spain.
The group of practitioners is referred to as ‘wren boys’ and their leader is often dressed in costume that depicts a horse, known as ‘the hobby horse’. Much effort is put into making the straw costumes and preparing music for the day. When rival groups of wren boys meet on December 26th, there is often a battle between the horses, much of this is most reminiscent of two groups meeting during the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
The music played on the day is comprised of traditional Irish music and contributes greatly to the lively atmosphere of the event. A traditional song is often sung with the refrain “The wren the wren the king of all birds/ St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze/ Her clothes were all torn- her shoes were all worn/ Up with the kettle and down with the pan/ Give us a penny to bury the “wran”/ If you haven’t a penny a halfpenny will do/ If you haven’t a halfpenny/ God bless you!” A variation of this was recorded by Liam Clancy in 1955 and kept alive in a recording by Dublin band, Lankum in 2019.
Money is gathered by the wren boys for charities and some may contribute to a wren ball which takes place a number of days after Lá an Dreoilín/Wren’s Day in order to celebrate the achievements of the wren community.
Lá an Dreoilín/Wrens’ Day is now and has been for many generations a highlight of the social calendar for many communities across Ireland in respect of its unique traditions and beautiful display of intergenerational custom that has provided a fabric from which to weave a tapestry of community awareness and interaction.
Practice and practitioners
Today, Lá an Dreoilín/Wren’s Day is practised widely by communities throughout Ireland, but particularly in parts of the West and South West of the country. In West Kerry, visitors and tourists are welcomed to join in the festivities and are bound to leave with rich memories of a unique cultural experience.
The key practitioners are those who organise the preparatory meetings in advance, make the costumes, practise the tunes, make the refreshments for the day, transport the wren boys by bus and car, and contribute their time, money and energy into an activity by and for the local communities in Ireland.
Contemporary practise can be illustrated in the celebration of the ‘wran’ in Stradbally, County Kerry. Here, a group of around 30 travel by bus throughout the parish, entering pubs and homes on a day when many elderly people and children alike are delighted to welcome visitors and comments are often associated with nostalgia and satisfaction that the tradition is still practiced. There are also people who are in the area for the festive season only and the sight of the wren is one which they bring back home on their phones with memories to recount to others.
Lá an Dreoilín/Wren’s Day is a highly communal activity, with everyone welcome to participate or just sit back and enjoy the performance. Children practise their instruments all year to be able to play along as they march through the towns on the day. Public houses come alive when a group of wren boys enter and there is always an air of competition between groups as to who has the better musicians, dancers, costumes and most of all; craic. There are merely slight variations on the practise throughout the country, though some areas may be more scaled down versions of the optimal practice of towns such as Dingle in West Kerry, which is seen as one of the Wren’s Day strongholds, preserving the nuances of the tradition with pride, as is well documented by MacDonagh (1983) in ‘The Wrenboys of Dingle’.
Development, transmission and safeguarding
The transmission of the traditions of the wren happen in a very organic way that is devoid of any form of marketing or explicit presentation. It is passed on in the way that any practise embedded in a culture is disseminated; through its very presence. Like a language that is picked up at birth, it is innate and fluency is acquired before an alternative is known. Though there may be the threat of other practices and modern conveniences subsuming The Wren, there is a hunger from the younger generation to keep it alive, due to its unique status to local identity.
This is illustrated by the revival in recent years of the local wren in Stradbally, County Kerry. Over five years ago, Mr Ciarán Fitzgerald (RIP) and a number of friends, who had taken part in a Wren for many years in another local town, decided that the time had come to revive the Stradbally Wren. Due to typical rural population and demographic changes, the Stradbally Wren had not taken place in over forty years. With the benefit of social media and word of mouth, meetings were arranged and a core group of twenty people from Stradbally committed to taking part in the Wren.
Mr Fitzgerald was chosen to take on the role of being the horse, which involves being inside a heavy costume for twelve hours. The head of the horse from the original Stradbally Wren horse was found after forty years and the Stradbally horse came back and the first Wren in over forty years was a major success with much needed funds raised for worthy charities.
Stradbally Wren, Castlegregory, Co Kerry