Ireland of the Welcomes
The Wren Boys
The history of the legendary Wren Boys and their Christmas parade
W“In years gone by the Wren Boys, and girls, would dress in old clothes and paint their faces or hide their identity behind straw hats.”
ith Christmas on the way, we take a look at the dramatic tradition of the Wren Boy, who still parade through the County Kerry town of Listowel each year.
Lá an Dreoilín in Irish or Wren Day was the name traditionally given to St Stephen’s Day in Ireland. Dating back to pre-Christian, Celtic Ireland the Wren Boys traditionally collected pennies to fund a party on 26th December in Ireland due to an ancient tradition that revolves around a tiny bird of the same name.
In more modern times, the collections are used to fund local charitable work and are still a big part of St. Stephen’s Day celebrations in many parts of the country, although thankfully the sacrificing of the wren is no longer part of this ancient tradition.
The Wren Boys would knock door-to-door singing and dancing with large wreaths made from holly and feathers and asking locals for a penny to bury the wren. Those who agreed were rewarded with a feather from the bird and luck for the incoming years, while those who refused were subjected to the burial of the wren happening outside their front door, invoking bad luck for the year ahead.
And what of the dramatic outfits? In years gone by the wren boys, and girls, would dress in old clothes and paint their faces or hide their identity behind straw hats. An old tradition that has stayed on, especially in County Kerry towns come Christmas.
You may ask why this small unassuming bird fell victim on Lá an Dreoilín and the answer, as with many ancient traditions will vary depending on who you ask. One story that is often recounted is the betrayal of St. Stephen by the wren. Some believe that the wren’s singing alerted Cromwell’s troops to the whereabouts of the Saint resulting in his detainment.
Another possible explanation is that hunting the wren is an old Celtic tradition as the wren represented the "old" year and the Celts would hunt them at midwinter as the dark half of the year was coming to a close.
Whatever your belief, a chance to see this celebration first hand would certainly bring the mysticism of old Ireland to life.