The Wren Boys (Part I)

“St. Stephen’s his day” is a red-letter event in the canaille calendar of Cork and neighbourhood. When the “wran-boys,” as they are locally termed, have captured a wren, the luckless bird is borne through the streets in a sort of triumphal progress, secured in a bush of holly or other evergreen, which is usually garnished with streamers of coloured ribbons, or variegated papers, according to the resources of tile exhibitors. In early morning the city resounds with the din of the wren-boys (which term, by the way, embraces matured manhood), who are making a house to house visitation, singing at each halt a chant, something as follows:-

“Mr. Blank is a worthy man,
And to his house we’ve brought the wran;
The wran, the wran that you may see
Is uarded by the holly-tree.

Sing holly, sing ivy, sing ivy, sing holly,
To keep a had Christmas it is but a folly;
For Christmas comes but once a year,
And when it comes it brings good cheer.

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s his Day was cot in the furze;
And though he is little, his family’s great,
So arise, good lady, and give us a trate.
Sing holly, sing ivy, etc.

Yet if you do fill it of the small,
It will not do for our boys at all;
But if you fill it of the best,
We hope in heaven your soul may rest.
Sing holly, sing ivy, etc.

This lyric, with its refrain, is long drawn out, and as its aim is the acquisition of largesse, the ballad does not fail to make eulogistic reference to the good cheer provided by the worthy master and mistress of the house, and their high reputation for hospitality during the festive season. Richard Dowden, mayor of Cork in I845, issued a proclamation during his mayoralty forbidding, on the score of cruelty, “the hunting of the little bird on St. Stephen’s day by all the idle fellows of the country,” a precedent which has never been followed by any of his successors in the civic chair. The origin of this brutal custom is not known. Professor Ridgeway, writing to the Academy, suggested the theory that the death of the wren symbolizes the death of winter; other correspondents of the same journal traced analogy between the Cork wren-boys and the Rhodian swallow-boys and the crow-boys of ancient Greece who went around with similar begging- songs. Goldsmith, while dealing elaborately with the superstitions connected with other birds, does not notice the custom ill his brief article on the wren; but the English General Vallancey, who spent a considerable time in Cork and the neighbourhood, and became an enthusiastic student of the Irish language and archaeology, asserts that the Druids regarded the wren as a sacred bird, which caused the early Christian missionaries to place it under ban, and issue an edict for its extermination. Windele, the Cork antiquary, however, assures us that Vallancey “dreamt things as visionary, and disported ill fancies as wild and incongruous, as any of the Irish Keatinges or O’Hallorans who had preceded him.” Another origin of the wren-slaughter is advanced in Hall’s “Ireland,” which contains a sketch of the St. Stephen’s Day ceremony by the distinguished Cork painter, Maclise. “ As to the origin of the whimsical but absurd and cruel custom,” writes Mr. Hall, “we have no data. A legend, however, is still current among the peasantry which may serve in some degree to elucidate it. In a grand assembly of all the birds of the air, it was determined that the sovereignty of the feathered tribe should be conferred upon the one who would fly highest. The favourite in the betting-book was, of course, the eagle, who at once, and in full confidence of victory, commenced his flight towards the sun; when he had vastly distanced all competitors, he proclaimed ill a mighty voice his monarchy over all things that had wings. Suddenly, however, the wren, who had secreted himself under the feathers Of the eagle’s crest, popped from his hiding-place, flew a few inches upwards and chirped out as loudly as he could, “Birds, look up, and behold your king.” In other parts of Ireland it seems the wren and robin find special favour. Mr.Watters of the Dublin University Zoological Society, asserts in his “Birds of Ireland” that the most heartless youngster who indulges in “practical ornithology” with the eggs and young of other birds, regards the redbreast as too sacred to be molested. “Wild and untutored,” he writes “ask him his reasons for allowing it to remain in safety, and in many parts of Ireland you are simply answered:
“The robin and the wren
Are God’s two holy men.”

Apparently a local variant of’ the Lancashire folk-rhyme:
“Cock Robin and Jenny Wren
Are God Almighty’s Cock and Hen.”

In view of the fine Corsican spirit in which the wren is annually done to death in the South of Ireland vendetta, it is needless to say that the rustic rhyme quoted by the Dublin ornithologist has no place ill the bird-lore of these parts. Nor does the pretty fiction of the robins forming a coverlet of leaves for the dead Babes in the Wood, so generally potent for their protection elsewhere, invest them with any peculiar sanctity in the eyes of the average Cork person.

Note: Taken from the Journal of the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society, 1894, Vol. III, p. 22.