St. Stephen’s Day is a national holiday in Ireland however the celebrations have little connection to Saint Stephen who was the first known Christian martyr, stoned to death shorty after the Crucifixion. St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland is the day for ‘Hunting the Wren” or “Going on the Wren.” Groups of young boys would hunt for a wren and chase the bird until they either have caught it or it has died from utter exhaustion. The dead bird is then tied to the top of a pole or better yet a holly bush, which is decorated with ribbons or colored paper.
In the early morning hours of St. Stephen’s Day the wren is carried from house to house by the boys, who usually have blackened faces or wear straw masks and are dressed in old clothes. At each house the boys will sing the “Wren Boys song.”
THE WREN, THE WREN, THE KING OF ALL BIRDS,
ON ST. STEPHEN’S DAY WAS CAUGHT IN THE FURZE.
ALTHOUGH HE IS LITTLE, HIS FAMILY IS GREAT,
I PRAY YOU, GOOD LANDLADY, GIVE US A TREAT.
MY BOX WOULD SPEAK, IF IT HAD BUT A TONGUE
AND TWO OR THREE SHILLINGS, WOULD DO IT NOT WRONG,
SING HOLLY, SING IVY–SING IVY, SING HOLLY,
A DROP JUST TO DRINK, IT WOULD DROWN MELANCHOLY.
AND IF YOU DRAW IT OF THE BEST,
I HOPE IN HEAVEN YOUR SOUL WILL REST,
BUT IF YOU DRAW IT OF THE SMALL,
IT WON’T AGREE WITH THESE WREN BOYS AT ALL.
It varies by communities what happens to the money that is collected by the Wren Boys.
In some areas the money is used to fund a dance for the whole village and in other areas the money is used to fund frivolity for the Wren Boys.
There is a couple of legends about the origin of this custom. One is that St. Stephen, hiding from his enemies in a bush, was betrayed by a chattering wren. The wren, like St. Stephen, should be hunted down and stoned to death. Another legend is that during the Viking raids of the 700’s, Irish fighters were betrayed by a wren as they were sneaking up on a Viking camp in the dead of night. A wren did a rat-a-tat-tat of its beak on the Viking drum sounding the alarm and waking the camp which lead to the defeat of the Irish fighters.. Thus leading to the persecution of the wren. At this point of the article it should noted that the publisher of The Irish Gazette celebrates the day of his birth on St. Stephen”s Day and it is thought in the Gazette’s news room that this is the real reason that St. Stephen’s Day is a National Holiday in Ireland. As he is prone to say … just saying.