WHERE HAVE all the wren-boys gone? (pronounced “wran-boys” in Tipperary). Have they now become completely extinct: victims to comfort, television, computer games and the world of I.T.
Or is victimhood just an over-statement of their complete disappearance from our celebration of St. Stephen’s Day and (if you want to be toffee-nosed about it!) is that disappearance just a normal progression from more innocent times and pleasures into our technological era?
Whatever the reason, the wren-boys have gone, but I have vivid memories of their calling to our door in my long ago youth. But even then, according to my father, they were not what they used to be, and were but a pale reflection of what he remembered.
In our street, it was usually the local boys who blackened their faces with either polish or soot from the chimney. They dressed up in a variety of garments, cast-offs, crepe paper. Some carried a holly bush decorated with pieces of ribbon, and they went from door to door in the neighbourhood. One or two of the boys might have had a mouth-organ or a tin-whistle (a Christmas present), but all would sing the prescribed: “Hubble a bubble a dreoilín, a dreoilín, a dreoilíin...” (repeat). “Hubble a bubble a tamborine.”
The following verses seemed specific to individual streets. The favourite in my Clonmel street was: “When I was going to Killenaule, I met a wren (wran) upon the wall, I up with me stick and I gave him a fall, And I knocked him into the wren-boy’s hall.” The tune deteriorated into a dirge as the day went on, and the boys became tired and bored. The activity was exclusively male. Girls did not take part.
I once spent a St. Stephen’s Day with my grandmother on her farm on the hinterland of Ardfinnan. There, the few groups of wren-boys that called to the farm were far more entertaining and musical than those in my local street. They played a variety of instruments and sang some of the then modern songs, ending the performance with the prescribed homage to the dreoilín, the wren, and then came the specifics of their visit: “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen’s Day he was caught in the furze/Although he was little, his honour was great, cheer up Mrs. Lonergan and give us a treat” (pronounced tr-aat).
My grandmother always had the “tr-aat” ready - chunks of Christmas cake or barn brack, and bottles of lemonade, together with a cash donation into the tin-can. The fancy dress and the blackened faces never fooled her. “Is that yourself, Mikey?” she would ask, and “How’s your father, Tommy?” The necessary pleasantries having been exchanged, they left the farmyard in the waning light of an afternoon in midwinter.
Why was the dreoilín, the wren, the object of such celebration? My father told me that, although he himself had never seen the bird as part of the parphernalia of the wren-boys, there was a tradition that it should be displayed (dead) on the holly bush. Christmas Day, according to this tradition, should have been spent “hunting the wren,” and presumably killing it. One can hear the loud protests from politically-correct bleeding-hearts, but tradition, apparently, did not allow for such modern sensitivities.
As a (very amateur) bird watcher, I find it difficult to understand how this delightful little bird could allow itself to be done to death by a group of youths wandering amongst the ditches of the countryside on a Christmas Day, whether on the road to Killenaule or anywhere else.
It is one of the smallest of our birds, with a tilted tail and a clear sweet song, so loud that it is altogether out of proportion to its size. It is shy but curious and it observes its territory by creeping, almost mouse-like, amongst the branches of the bushes, in contrast with the robin which will come within a few inches of somebody digging or weeding in the garden.
Its claim to fame lies, of course, in the old classical fable about a contest amonst the birds as to which of them could fly to the highest altitude. The wren, being, very, very clever, climbed onto the back of the eagle, and when it soared above all the other birds, the wren just hopped off its back and went a little higher - thereby achieving the title of the King of the Birds.
What is the significance, the thread of legend, that links that fable with the wren boys of Ireland? Is there a commonalty of stories, of superstitions, of experiences that transcends boundaries of nationality and of culture? And why the blackened faces, the attempted disguises, the garbled verses, “the tr-aats”? Were the wren-boys a last surviving hurrah from very ancient times and of the ceremony of seeing off the ghosts of the Old Year and a warning to the spirits of the New?
Whatever their origins, it would seem that we have seen the last of the wren-boys and are unlikely ever again to hear the demand of “Up with the kettle, and down with the pan/Give us a penny and let us be gone....” on St. Stephen’s Day in Clonmel.