This is the day on which “the Wran-Boys” go their rounds. For a day or two previously the wren has been hunted over with stick or stone. Two or three of them are tied to a branch torn from a holly bush, which is decorated with coloured ribbons. On St. Stephans Day small parties of young boys carry one of these bushes about the country, and visit houses along the road, soliciting coin or eatables. At each house, they come to, the repeat a verse or two of a ‘song’ which commences:-
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze;
Though his 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 me some money to bury the wren.”
The song varies in different localities, but all versions appear disjointed, and in no way refer to St. Stephen’s Day, nor to the object of killing the wren.
In some cases, the wren-boys carry round little toy birds on a decorated bier, and they themselves have ribbons and coloured pieces of cloth pinned to their clothes.
If they receive no welcome at a house and are told to “be of out of that,” there is the danger of their burying one of the wrens opposite the hall-door, through which no luck would then enter for a twelvemonth. Eventually, at the end of the day, each wren is buried with a penny.
The origin of this custom is very doubtful, and as a rule, the old people cannot account for it except that they carried round the wren when they were ‘gossoons’ (young lads). One theory is that when the Danes were in Ireland, the Irish on a certain occasion had planned a night attack on their camp; they were silently creeping forward, and had, unperceived by the Danes’ sentries, reached to almost charging distance, when a flock of “scooter-wrens,” which had been disturbed and had flown on in front of them, lit on some drums ear the sentries, who were asleep, and by their twitters of alarm and their hopping about, awoke the sentries, who perceived their danger, and so aroused the camp in time to drive off the Irish with heavy loss.
Other versions of this tale place the date with the discomfiture of the Irish, from the same cause, at the time the Jacobites were endeavouring to withstand William III and his Orangemen in 1690.
Note: From The Journal of the Kildare Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. V., 1906-1908. Customs peculiar to certain days, formerly observed in County Kildare.