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The Story Behind Wren Day (And The Wren Boys) In Ireland

The Story Behind Wren Day (And The Wren Boys) In Ireland

While there are many Christmas traditions in Ireland, few are as unique as Wren Day.

Also referred to as ‘The Day of the Wren’, ‘Wren’s Day’ or ‘Lá an Dreoilín’ in Irish, Wren Day is a very old celebration.

Taking place on December 26th, it’s one of many similar celebrations that takes place across Europe, the most similar of which is the ‘Hunting of the Wren’ on the Isle of Man.

Below, you’ll find info on its origins, what the Wren Boys are all about and what takes place on the day.

Some quick need-to-knows about Wren Day

day of the wren

Photo courtesy Failte Ireland (by Valerie O’Sullivan)

Right – let’s get you up-to-speed nice and quickly. Here’s a quick overview of what Wren Day is all about:

1. When it takes place

Wren Day is an old Irish tradition that takes place on December 26th – St. Stephen’s Day.

2. What it’s all about

There are many different takes on where Wren Day originated. Some believe it’s related to mid-winter celebrations, others say it’s a celebration of the ‘king of the birds’ and some say it comes from a time when Vikings were invading. More info below.

3. What happens on Wren Day

On Wren Day, a wren is captured (in modern times a fake wren is used), placed upon a decorated pole and then paraded around a town/village by ‘Wren Boys’ who, while singing and/or playing music, go from house to house collecting donations.

4. Notable celebrations in Ireland

Some of the more famous Wren Day celebrations in Ireland take place in Dingle in Kerry and in Miltown in Clare.

5. Similar celebrations elsewhere

There are many other celebrations that take place in Europe that are similar to Ireland’s Wren Day. In France, for example, a wren-hunting tradition dating back to 1524 takes place in Carcassonne. On the Isle of Man, ‘Hunting the Wren’ takes place on December 26th with attendees dancing to live music.

Where Wren Day originated

wren boys

Photo courtesy Failte Ireland (by Valerie O’Sullivan)

As mentioned above, there are many celebrations similar to Wren Day that take place across Europe.

As such, there are several different theories around the origins of Wren Day. They tend to fall into three buckets – the Celtic theory, the Christian theory and the Norse theory.

Theory 1

Many believe that Wren Day is strongly tied to Celtic Mythology. It’s thought that the event is linked to mid-winter or Samhain (a Gaelic festival) celebrations.

The wren was likely sacrificed during these rituals. The now-iconic bird was believed to be a symbol of the past year as it sings even during the cold winter months.

Theory 2

Another theory says that, in ancient Ireland, a challenge was set to discover which was the king of the birds.

The challenge stated that the bird that soared highest into the air would be crowned king. Although many tried, it was the eagle that soared highest. That was until a wren powered past it and was crowned ‘King’.

In the first line of the wren song (found below) it says ‘The wren the wren the king of all birds’, which would seem to confirm this.

Theory 3

The final theory about the origin of Wren Day is that it came from settlers from Scandinavia who came to Ireland during the Viking invasions.

The story goes that the wren would attack Irish soldiers as they fought against the Viking invaders. This could be the reason the wren is hunted on St. Stephen’s Day.

What takes place on Wren Day

wren day in ireland

Photo courtesy Failte Ireland (by Valerie O’Sullivan)

Wren Day in Ireland has changed quite a bite as the years progressed (similar to the famous Puck Fair in Kerry).

Here’s a speedy overview of what takes place over the course of the celebration.

The wren

Traditionally, men and boys from a town or village would capture a wren and place it on top of a decorated pole (see the photo above).

They’d then parade it around the town/village. Over the years the celebration has changed and a fake wren is used instead.

The Wren Boys

The people that take part in the celebration are known as ‘Wren Boys’ or ‘Straw Boys’ and, in some old photos, they can look quite haunting.

The Wren Boys wear either straw ‘suits’, as you can see in the photo above, masks or face paint. 

Music and money

The Wren Boys traditionally walk through a town/village singing or playing music while parading the wren.

In years past, they would have asked for donations from people. It’s said that ‘back in the day’ these donations would have been then taken to a local pub and put to good use.

In more recent years, collections are taken for charity or local causes.

The song

‘The wren the wren the king of all birds

St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze

Her clothes were all torn- her shoes were all worn

Up with the kettle and down with the pan

Give us a penny to bury the “wran”

If you haven’t a penny, a halfpenny will do

If you haven’t a halfpenny, God bless you!’

FAQs about Wren Day in Ireland

The wren boys festival

Once Christmas in Ireland arrives, we tend to get constant emails asking about Wren Day.

In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.

What is Wren Day in Ireland?

Lá an Dreoilín (or Wren Day) is celebrated on December 26th. It involves the capturing of a wren (now a fake version) and the parading of it around a town/village. Money is collected, songs are sung and music is played.

What happens on Wren Day?

Traditionally, a wren was captured and placed upon a decorated pole. It would then be paraded throughout the town/villages streets and music would have been played. 

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