The Wren Day in Dingle - A Few Hearty Souls Keep it Alive

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County Kerry, quiet for most of the winter, makes a little noise after Christmas on Wren Day in Dingle

By Regina Sexton

You might think St. Stephen's Day, December 26th, is a day to sleep in, maybe work of the excesses of the day before, hide from the mountains of Christmas wrapping paper, and avoid the remnants of the Christmas turkey. Not so if you live in Dingle, County Kerry, a town visited by tourists in summer, but which recaptures its quiet, remote feeling in the winter months. Here, the people wake early, and by 6 a.m. are on the streets in straw costumes and fancy dress, parading about waving banners to announce The Wren (pronounced "wran") Day. This is done to the accompanyment of lively Irish music, played by paraders with tin whistles and accordions. On Wren Day, no one sleeps late in Dingle town.

The popularity of the Wren Day celebration waned greatly in the early 1990's. But in the last few years, young people in Dingle have shown great interest in its continuation, and a new sense of life has been injected into the event.

Musicians in disguise
The day, called La an Dreoilin (the day of the wren) was once practiced throughout Ireland. Groups of disguised musicians and dancers went from door to door, or from pub to pub, collecting money or offerings of food. On a bush decorated with ribbons (preferably a holly bush), they hung the wren or wrens that had been hunted and killed earlier that day reciting a rhyme that began:
The wran, the wran
the king of all birds
On Stephen's Day
was caught in the furze

If no offerings were forthcoming at a house, there was a danger that the wren would be buried outside the hall-door, which was taken to bring bad luck for the next 12 months. More commonly, the wren was buried with a penny at the end of the day's festivities (the rest of the money collected went to buying drink).

The little wren was the selected victim because of a belief that this bird betrayed a group of Irish soldiers by perching and tapping on their drums as they approached part of Cromwell's army. Alerted to their presence, Cromwell's men massacred them all. For this, the bird is to be punished ever after. Thankfully, nowadays an immitation is used in place of a real bird.

This once widespread custom has all but disappeared, except in Dingle where the entire day is devoted to its celebration. The day is split into three parts, starting with the 6 a.m. musical parade through town. Then, at about noon, all the young children go from door to door in fancy dress, collecting sweets (candy), which is always in abundance during Christmas season. By 1 or 2 o'clock, adults and young paraders, all still in costume, retire to the Dingle pubs. There, the teenagers play music long into the night, while the grownups, not doubt, imbibe too many libations.