We often catch sight of the little brown wrens (Troglodytidae – cave dweller) here at Hillsborough Castle, darting out from thick bushes across the Small Park. In Ireland, the wren is associated with the turning point of the year when everything goes topsy-turvy – this is this time the Lord of Misrule presides and traditional roles are reversed. This might be because of the wren’s reputation as a trickster. The story goes that when the birds were electing their king they decided that whoever could fly the highest would win the contest; the eagle easily outflew everyone else but the wren, who had been hiding in his wings, waited until his unwitting ride had exhausted himself and then flew on up to claim the title.
In comes the Wran,
The Wran, the Wran, the king of all birds.
On St Stephen’s Day I was caught in the furze.
Although I am little my family is great,
Rise up landlady and give us a trate.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Give a few pence to bury the Wran.
Then I’ll dip my wings in a barrel of beer,
And I’ll wish you all a happy New Year.
These lyrics give a hint of the connection between the wren and St. Stephen’s Day (26 December). Traditionally, small parties of mummers carried their holly bush about the country and visited the ‘big house’ soliciting money or edible treats. They ‘carry around little toy birds on a decorated bier, and they themselves have ribbons and coloured pieces of cloth tied to their clothes. If they receive no welcome at a house and are told to, “be off out of that”, there is the danger of them burying one of the wrens opposite the hall-door, through which no luck would then enter for a twelvemonth.” – Echoes of a Savage Land by Joe McGowan
As with most rituals, there are several claims to the origins of this Irish ceremony, all based on ideas of treachery, betrayal and the toppling of the natural order of things. According to one legend it was a wren who alerted St Stephen’s persecutors to his hiding place; an old story also blames the wren for alerting a band of Vikings to the approach of the Irish army by pecking on a drum; in another version it was the wing beats of a flock of wrens which alerted Cromwell’s sleeping sentries to the approach of Irish forces; and yet another refers to Cliona, the mystical seductress who lured young men to their deaths on the seashore and escaped in the guise of a wren. The wren’s reputation and fate was probably sealed by medieval clerics who wanted to distance the Christian Christmas from the ancient mid-winter celebrations – the Irish for wren is dreolín, the ‘druid bird’.
So we have invited internationally renowned mummers, the Armagh Rhymers to perform as Wren Boys, at one time a common sight across Ireland, at Hillsborough Castle this Christmas. Needless to say, we will be making sure the Rhymers are all well fed and watered and that no wrens are harmed in the process!
A Georgian Family Christmas at Hillsborough Castle; 21-23 December 2016
Shan McAnena, Creative Programming & Interpretation Manager, Hillsborough Castle