The King of All Birds
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
The mystical wren, most clever of all the birds of Ireland
From the earliest times in Ireland the tiny native wren has been regarded with respect as the wisest bird of all, who outsmarted the eagle to become the king of the birds of Ireland. Indeed some believe that its name in Irish, dreoilín, means trickster.
The craftiness of this little bird was how it got its crown, for the king of all the birds of Ireland was the one who could fly the highest. As soon as all of the different kinds of birds took flight and strained upwards, the wren hid itself in the tailfeathers of the eagle and nestled there safe an sound until the eagle could ascend no higher.
In exhaustion he screeched his defiant cry of victory to the world far below and the endless blue skies above, when what should happen but out popped the wren and flew a little higher!
“I am the king of all the birds,” chirruped the wren, but the eagle was wroth and full of anger.
“It is not so!” shrieked the eagle, “for I have given all of my strength to win the game!” To which the wise little wren answered,
“If you may win through strength, why may I not win by cunning?”
And that is how the wren became known as the king of the birds.
But there are other stories of the naming of the wren which tell that it meant “druid bird”, the draoí éan, with which those scholars of the Celts of Wales agree, along with many legends. Another Old Irish name for the Wren is “Drùi donn” or “the brown druid”.
The wren was seen by druids as a voice which could carry messages to the otherworld, and the patterns of the flights of wrens were carefully studied for answers, warnings and prophecies from the spirits and gods.
As a sacred bird its nest was not to be plundered for eggs, and the killing of a wren was said to bring a lifelong curse of poverty and misery. Wrens made their nests in oak trees and served an important role in protecting these trees too, so there were practical as well as mystical reasons not to cause them harm. Not to mention that lightning would strike any who trespassed in the wren’s house!
The only exception was once a year on Wren Day, when some stories relate that the druids would capture and kill a wren, the only bird that sings during the winter, in order to beg passage through the harsh cold and snow from supernatural powers in the sweet voice of this little bird. It was paraded through the locality hung from a holly tree adorned with yellow gorse, blessing every house it called to with song, until finally being given a ritual burial to say farewell to the old year.
"Up Sraid Eoin(the druid’s bird)! We never died a winter yet," as they say on at least one street in Dingle town.
A gift was expected in return, and those who didn’t have something ready might suffer dreadful misfortune in the coming year!
When Christianity arrived in Ireland, the missionaries found this kind of thinking troublesome, and so they renamed the day after Christmas St Stephen’s day, rather than being given over to the wren as it had been since time immemorial.
The story of the wren changed to make it a treacherous creature, one who had betrayed St Stephen to the Jews as he hid in the yellow furze, betrayed Irish warriors to the Vikings, and who even woke Cromwell’s men just as the Irish were about to attack while they lay sleeping! A witch called Cliona had been imprisoned in a small cage for all time, but once a year she was allowed to escape in the shape of a wren and fly free to work what mischief she could.
And so wren day became as much about vengeance as it was about safe passage through the dark season, but still it persisted. Wren boys dressed themselves up in costumes each year and went from house to house with either a wren, alive or dead, or a feathered cork, or some other replacement for the bird if one could not be found, attached to poles with ribbons.
Some wren boys would pretend to have a wren in a box nailed to the top of a stick which was decorated, although often enough there was no bird in it. Sometimes it was a mouse or even a robin. Usually, it was just moss or hay.
If anyone actually managed to catch a wren they were celebrated, but groups would jump back as the ladies of the house would try to see if there was really a wren. If you were caught without a wren and had a substitute you were shamed, or caught some “banter and humbugging”.
“The Boys of Barr na Sraide” immortalises in ballad the young men “who roamed about with cudgels stout, a-searching for the wran.”
This was, and still is in some parts of Ireland, called “going on the Wren”. Money and food collected as tribute was used to pay for a great party afterwards, called a Join. They would choose a house to celebrate and a barrel of alcohol was brought for the men and wine for the women. They would have jam, cake, and bread, lading the tables with good cheer they might not otherwise find. It was a great night of dancing and music until dawn.
As they went they sang different songs, but a popular version was,
The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen's day was caught in the furze.
His body is little but his family is great
So rise up landlady and give us a trate.
And if your trate be of the best
Your soul in heaven can find its rest.
And if your trate be of the small
It won’t plaze the boys at all.
A glass of whiskey and a bottle of beer
Merry Christmas and a glad New Year.
So up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wran.
The costumes worn by the wren boys varied depending on where the festivities were being held – in some places they wore hoods or pinned colourful ribbons to their clothes, or wore the skin of a goat, a rabbit or a horse, in others sinister but elaborate costumes or night clothes, in yet others the men would dress up as women and vice-versa, and in many areas they would wear a three part costume made of straw.
The straw of choice for the suits is that which comes from oats and, since there is little demand for oats, good straw is becoming increasingly difficult to find. In many cases, oats are grown specifically for the Wren.
These straw costumes originated with the Whiteboys or Strawboys, an 18th and 19th century society of Irish people fighting against English occupation, who became feared for the vengeance they took on greedy landlords and sadistic officials.
It was important when going on the Wren to disguise not only yourself but where you came from, so if asked, a wren boy would always claim to be from the next town over, or even further abroad.
It was not unusual for different groups of wren boys to tussle over who could parade through which areas, since second callers would usually get turned away empty handed.
That was a risky business however since a wren buried before your door meant no luck would enter it for the next twelvemonth! In any case the wren was buried with full honours and a penny at the end of the night.
In West Kerry, the focal point of the wren boy parade is a hobby horse. A horse with a wooden head, snapping jaws and a body made from cloth stretched across a timber frame is worn on the shoulders of one of the members of the Wren who whirls and capers at the head of the parade. Horses were of great importance and value throughout European Gaelic societies, and their veneration remains still in this corner of Ireland. Ceremonial combat is also practised in Kerry during these parades.
These very ancient traditions and customs sprag from the hearths and hearts of the people of Ireland, remarkably surviving to the modern day, bursting forth like a phoenix from the ashes of older times to spark the timeless high-spirited revels!
“Fly little bird,
With your ribbons and prayers,
We hunted you down
Gave you cage and a crown.
Fly little wren,
May your song never end,
In darkness your sight -
Gave your life for our light.”
Excerpt from Song “The Hunting of the Wren” by Jen Delyth
West Kerry is marked on the map below!
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