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Tiny, restless and pugnacious, no other British bird is less in need of an introduction than the Wren.

The Wren

Tiny, restless and pugnacious, no other British bird is less in need of an introduction than the Wren
The Wren Boys and the Wren Bush parade in the Irish countryside on St Stephen’s Day, from an engraving in The Illustrated London News, 1850.

"The popularity of the Wren Day celebration waned greatly in the early 1900s, but in the last few years, young people in Dingle have shown great interest in its continuation"

Peter Holthusen

 

I have just returned from Dingle, home to the now legendary festival of Lá an Dreoilín ‘Wren Day’, where the Irish used to celebrate the day after Christmas by killing wrens, for there was an ancient Celtic myth that suggested the Robin, who was supposed to represent the New Year killed the Wren which represented the Old Year during this time.

Originally, groups of small boys and sometimes young men known as ‘Wren Boys’, often dressed in outrageous costumes, would hunt a Wren, and then chase the tiny bird until they either caught it or it had died from exhaustion. The dead bird was then tied to the top of a pole or holly bush, which was decorated with ribbons or coloured paper, and then carried in procession as the boys purportedly gathered money to bury the poor bird.

The diminutive size and russet-brown colouring (paler, more buff, below) and plump, stumpy build with short tail, usually cocked up, are characteristic.

 

Early in the morning of St Stephen’s Day, the Wren was carried from house to house by the boys, who wore straw masks or blackened their faces with bunt cork, and dressed in old clothes. At each house, the boys sang the Wren Boy’s song.

If no offerings were forthcoming at a house, there was a danger that the wren would be buried outside the hall door, which was taken to bring bad luck for the next 12 months. More commonly, the wren was buried with a penny at the end of the day’s festivities (the rest of the money collected went to buying a drink).

In addition to the popular Celtic myth, it is also believed that the little wren was the selected victim because of a belief that this bird betrayed a group of Irish soldiers by perching and tapping on their drums as they approached part of Cromwell’s army. Alerted to their presence, Cromwell’s men massacred them all. For this, the bird is to be punished ever after. Thankfully, nowadays a crudely fashioned artificial Wren is used in place of a real bird.

Today, no wrens are harmed in the name of Wren Day. In fact, the holiday is barely celebrated in a lot of places in Ireland, but a few hearty souls keep it alive in Dingle, a picturesque little coastal town a short drive from my home on the Iveragh Peninsula, so having heard about this age old tradition and my passion for ornithology I felt compelled to pay the festival a visit.

You might think St Stephen’s Day is a day to sleep in, maybe work of the excesses of the day before, hide from the mountains of Christmas wrapping paper, and avoid the remnants of the Christmas turkey. Not so if you live in Dingle, Co. Kerry, a town crammed with tourists in the summer, but which recaptures its quiet, remote feeling in the winter months. Here, the people wake early, and by 6am are on the streets in straw costumes and fancy dress, parading about waving banners to announce The Wren (pronounced “wran”) Day. This is done to the accompaniment of lively Irish music, played by musicians with tin whistles and accordions. On Wren Day, no one sleeps in Dingle town.

The popularity of the Wren Day celebration waned greatly in the early 1900s, but in the last few years, young people in Dingle have shown great interest in its continuation, and a new sense of life has been injected into the event. The name ‘Wren’ comes from the Middle English ‘wrenne’ and means ‘a little tail’. Almost all additions and variants (‘Bobby’, ‘chitty’, ‘puggy’, ‘two fingers’ and so forth) are common name references to the bird’s smallness. Those of us whose memories extend back before 1971 will remember the farthing, which was equal to one-quarter of an old English penny and the smallest coin then in circulation; a Wren featured on its reverse.

The Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) is a familiar bird in gardens, woodlands, hedges – indeed almost anywhere that offers the dense cover that it needs for nesting, and, in recent years, it has become one of the commonest resident birds in Britain, nesting in all manner of unlikely places.

A Wren nested for several years running in Challock Church, Kent, on a shelf on the lectern beneath the wings of the great brass eagle. Quite recently, during the course of a funeral hymn, a mummified Wren was blown out of one of the organ pipes, landing in the lap of the squealing lady organist who thought it was a mouse. The little bird was perfectly shaped and was subsequently used as the model in a painting.

The male is often polygamous, usually building a number of nests within its territory and installing several females in succession in different nest sites. The nest is a stout domed structure of leaves, moss, grasses, and other plant material. The male builds the outer nest and the one that the female selects is then lined with feathers.

The diminutive size and russet-brown colouring (paler, more buff, below) and plump, stumpy build with short tail, usually cocked up, are characteristic. The wings, tail and flanks are distinctly, and the back more obscurely, barred. Bustling and active, it is constantly on the move, hunting for insects in cover or in the open, and often disappears from view amongst tangled vegetation or as it examines every little crevice in a tree, wall or rock face.

A clutch of between 5-8 eggs are usually laid, but up to 16 have been recorded. They are smooth and glossy, very often white, or with a limited area of minute speckling or tiny spots of black or reddish-brown at the larger end. The breeding season begins late April and is singlebrooded. Incubation is by the female alone, usually for about 14-15 days.

What the Wren lacks in size, it more than makes up for in voice and chances are that you will hear its amazingly loud song long before you see it. In spring and summer, Wrens often enjoy singing while perched on top of the cotoneaster below my bedroom window – sometimes at 4am and I have to remind myself why I love birds!

Perhaps it is its size, its relative secretiveness or simply its familiarity that has attracted such profound and deep passions. No one seems to know, but it has featured abundantly in folklore and legend since before recorded history. An exquisitely beautiful and accurate painting of a Wren appears on the Sherborne Missal of c.1400, which is the largest, most lavishly illuminated English medieval manuscript to have survived the Reformation intact.

When general folklore centres on the extraordinary ritual of ‘Hunting the Wren’, it was most comprehensively reviewed by Edward Armstrong (1900-1978), the last in England’s line of distinguished parson-naturalists, who wrote the definitive scientific monograph on it. He called the Wren Hunt “among the most elaborate bird rituals surviving in Europe” and it is one that has always been important to the British Isles.

In essence, the event usually took place on St Stephen’s Day (26 December), although it also occurred on New Year’s Day and at other times during the winter months. In Wales, it was generally associated with Twelfth Night. There are few accounts from Scotland, but it has been recorded from many parts of England and Wales and has always been particularly strong in Ireland and the Isle of Man.

In Co. Kerry where we live the Wren Boys still turn out on St Stephen’s Day purportedly gathering money to bury the poor bird. Thirty years ago they still dressed in the traditional costume of straw woven into a cape and covering the head: a very frightening sight at the door for unsuspecting English people unaware of the custom. Nowadays any kind of costume seems acceptable and face paints add to the colour. Mostly they give value for the money they collect, singing and playing musical instruments. This is particularly true in Co. Tipperary where they call at houses and all the pubs in the area. A famous song written in the twentieth century by a Kerryman, Sigerson Clifford, is called ‘The Boys of Barr Na Stráide’ recalling his boyhood days with each verse ending “when the boys of Barr Na Stráide went hunting for the wran”.

Traditionally, the bird was killed with a bow and arrow and sometimes its corpse was dismembered and its feathers put to various uses. In some places, as in parts of Wales and the West Country, the whole ceremony was associated with weddings and marriage, the homes of recently married couples being visited by the procession. In recent times, both public opinion and the Law have thankfully protected birds from cruelty and ritualistic killing, which subsequently led to the use of the artificial birds mentioned earlier.

In 1999, Conor O’Brian, who was a Wren Boy in the early 1940s in West Cork, and anxious to dispel the notion that any harm befell the birds, said in ‘The Countryman’ that the purpose could be satisfied by “a ball of wool, plucked from a friendly sheep and suitably dyed”.

This is a much simplified summary of a complex and varied ritual. In parts of Ireland in particular, the Wren Hunt was inextricably associated with the traditional Folk Play, in which horns and animal skin costumes were worn by the male characters, and other odd clothes by men masquerading as women. In some areas, what Edward Armstrong sensitively describes as “pantomimic obscenities” and representations of sexual congress were involved. Similarly complex ceremonies existed in other parts of Europe, the whole merging imperceptibly with the Morris Dance, the Sword Dance and ancient Dionysiac ritual, which were strongly associated with satyrs, centaurs, and selini.

The custom survived in many parts of England and Wales until well into the twentieth century and is clearly still performed on the Isle of Man. Its origin is very old and Armstrong examined this in some depth. Parallels are found in the rituals of other cultures and with other birds in many parts of the world. In Edward Armstrong’s own summary:

“We may conclude that the Wren Cult reached the British Isles during the Bronze Age and was carried by megalith builders whose cultural inspiration came from the Mediterranean region. Probably these folk cherished mainly solar magico-religious beliefs. The Wren Hunt represents New Year ceremonial having as its purpose the defeat of the dark earth-powers and identification with the hoped-for triumph of light and life”.

Why the Wren?

This is difficult to answer because many other birds feature in what are clearly related ceremonies elsewhere. Perhaps we need look no further than the fact that it has always attracted attention and curiosity because of its diminutive size.

Despite such ceremonial persecution of the Wren, it has been thought in many places ill luck to hurt one and, certainly, it seems to have been used little if at all as a source of folk medicine. It was thought to be the bird that brought water to the island of Guernsey and, for that reason, was sacred and not to be harmed. On another island, however, Wrens suffered greatly.

Several distinct island races have been described by ornithologists, the most celebrated being the St Kilda Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes hirtensis), which lives on the remote Hebridean island cliffs alongside colonies of Fulmars, Guillemots and Puffins. This proved to be almost its undoing; it was persecuted mercilessly by Victorian egg and skin-collectors wanting to add this rarest of creatures to their collections until the Wild Birds Protection (St Kilda) Act of 1904 came to its rescue as it did for the endangered Leach’s Petrel.

In some areas, the sight of Wrens congregating presaged bad weather, but they generally seem to feature little in weather lore. Throughout the centuries, the Wren has often been associated with that other familiar small bird, the Robin, and the very odd notion that one is married to the other.

- Peter Holthusen

 

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