Opinion: a huge number of folklore traditions and rituals have grown up around the little wren, especially at this time of year

Now that the festive season is here and we're busy shopping, decorating and celebrating, let's find out a little bit about the king of the birds, the wren, who is associated with Christmas and especially St Stephen's Day. The little bird who is perceived as wisdom and cunningness, sacred and an inconspicuous living her life at a pace, also known as herald of the rising sun.

The popular wren rhyme goes: 

The wren, the wren, the King of all birds,

St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze.

So up with the kettle and down with the pan,

and give us a penny to bury the wren.

As I was walking down the road,I saw a wren upon a stone.I lifted my stick, and I threw it at him

At four o'clock in the morning!

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News' report on Wren Boy activites in 1963

The origin of the word wren in Irish is dreoilín, which means a trickster. The trickery and cunningness of wren is popular since the day it was titled as 'The King of Birds’. The story goes that all the birds gathered to choose the king of the birds. Each species had some or the other power which made it difficult for them to choose the best so it was decided that the bird who flew the farthest will be chosen as the King.

As soon as the birds took off into the air, the little wren hid herself in the feathers of the eagle, for she knew the eagle can fly the farthest. The eagle flew higher and higher to a point where it thought no other bird can fly further. As the eagle started to come down confident and happy that it had achieved the title, it heard a voice from the sky chiming 'I am the king, I am the king!' and this was the little wren who had been hiding in the feathers of the eagle. She took a little flight above the eagle without exhausting herself unlike rest of the birds who tried to fly high but could not beat the eagle.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News from 1971 on Wren Boys in Limerick inspired by the western A Fistful of Dollars

The victory of wren was not accepted by the eagle who said 'I used all my strength to win the competition'. The little wise wren replied, "if the eagle can win through its strength then why cannot she win with her wisdom?" She considers her wisdom as a power similarly to how the eagle considers her strength to fly high as a power. 

All over the Europe, it is generally believed that killing the bird or its nest is forbidden as the bird is known for its good fortune. But according to many local myths and beliefs in Ireland, the bird is thought to bring bad luck and bad news. This can be seen during the celebrations on St. Stephens Day: the belief goes back to the early 20th century when a group of boys called 'Wren Boys’ or ‘Straw Boys’ dressed up with masks and straw suits that reflects the dead birds. 

The group hunts and kills the bird with a stick or a stone to hang on the branch from holly bush before marching around town to beg a penny 'to bury the wren'. The group who are unable to hunt a real wren are consider to be ‘unlucky’ and they tie up a bird doll or effigy to take part in the parade.

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From RTÉ Archives, Dermot Mullane reports for RTÉ News on St Stephen's Day happenings in Drogheda in 1977

So up with the kettle and down with the pan

Bad fortune became associated with the bird because of its treachery. The locals claim that when St. Stephen, who is known as the first Christian martyr, was hiding from his attackers, it was wren who attracted the persuaders by flapping her wings and let them know about his hiding. As a result, the bird is associated with bad fortune and betrayal.

St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze

Another explanation also exists for associating the little bird with bad luck which dates to when Irish forces were about to attack Cromwell's troops. The little birds sat on the drums of the soldiers and started to make noise, which woke up the troops who saved their camps and themselves. 

READ: "I'll see you the Wran's Day in Dingle"

And give us a penny to bury the wren

According to the superstition and tradition, the Wren boys were founded to end the bad fortune. They beg for a penny and, if a house is not generous enough, the boys bury the bird under their door, which results in no fortune for next 12 months. At the end of the St. Stephens Day march, the groups bury all the hunted birds with a penny. With this burial of the bird, it is believed that all the bad luck and bad fortune will go away, something which justifies the hunting and killing of the bird by naming it as the debt paid to the nature. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ