Another Life: Wren Boys herald tales of the tiny king of birds

What were – are – the Wren Boys all about? Was there an elder in the village who told of how the wren should ever have been ‘the king of all birds’? Or why it should be killed, or spared, on St Stephen’s Day, and why everyone had to stump up for the ‘burial’?

They wore home-made masks cut from cornflake packets, but the little wren in their jam jar was, as it were, the real thing, still alive and fretful on its sprig of holly.

The lads muttered their rhyme, after a fashion, and most of the customers paid up. Some had a pint of stout in their fist, others had come for rashers off the big side of bacon on the counter, or even a galvanised bucket off the ceiling. And I needed stamps. It was a village store in northern Connemara in 1961, probably a bit before your time.

What were – are – the Wren Boys all about? Had they the slightest idea? Was there an elder in the village who told of how the wren, the tiny Troglodytes troglodytes, should ever have been "the king of all birds"?

Or why it should be killed, or spared, on St Stephen’s Day, and why everyone had to stump up for the “burial”?

There are 68 versions of the most frequent tale of the wren in the voluminous archives of the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin, those recorded in Irish being longer and better than the rest.

They add to thousands more collected throughout Europe, for Ireland has been simply the longest, richest and most active repository of a folk ritual known, in various forms, from eastern Europe to Britain, France and the Isle of Man.

Aesop's fables
Once upon a time, the initial germ of it runs, the birds ran a competition in which the one that flew highest would be king. In the course of it the crafty wren hung on beneath the eagle's wing.

And when the eagle had reached the peak of its altitude, the wren took off and flew higher, crying: “No you’re not – I’m the king!”

This much features among Aesop’s 600 fables of the sixth century, and was picked up by Aristotle, Pliny and Plutarch, all of which puts it back well before Christianity.

The kingship of the wren features in many common names, such as the Dutch winterkoning and the German Zaunkönig. As a cultural meme, as Richard Dawkins might put it, such a spread is already extraordinary enough.

But what motivated the hunting of the wren, and often the killing of it, and the Christmas processions bearing it aloft, dead or alive, on a holly bush tied to a broomstick?

In Cork, as Mr and Mrs Hall saw in the 1840s, there were several dead wrens on the bush, and the collection, for the funeral, was spent on getting drunk.

Quizzing “the peasantry”, they were offered a legend in which a wren betrayed the Irish in an ambush of Vikings by an ill-timed pecking on a drum.

Aeronautical mischief
This does not explain why wrens should have been hunted and killed in Wales and carried door to door to the catchy rhythm of "We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin / We hunted the wren for Jack of the Can."

Or why, in southern France, the youths of Carcassonne marked the turning of the year by processions with the slaughtered wren borne on a pole wreathed in olive twigs and mistletoe.

The wren had already been disgraced for its aeronautical mischief. “When they were going down,” relates a tale recorded in Irish, “the eagle hit him on the back with his beak. He hurt him in the back and ever since he cannot fly but from hedge to hedge and from bush to bush . . .”

Or, to quote a Ted Hughes poem: "The wren is a nervous wreck / Since he saw the sun from the back of an eagle. / He prefers to creep . . ."

But it must have needed more than a prejudicial fable for the hunting of the wren to go viral, as it were, in one community after another.

People were often marking the winter solstice, which is today, and invoking the return of the sun in the new year. All this was hijacked by the later Christian festival – but why do it at all?

Ireland's particular wealth of recorded and residual customs has attracted many European folklorists, among them Sylvie Muller, from France, who did her PhD on traditions about the wren.

The bird, she suggested, in the folklore journal Béaloideas, stood for man, and "the wren ritual may be interpreted as enacting the death of Man killed by Nature, or the sacrifice of Man to, and by, Nature . . . The wren has to die in order to pay the debt of Nature."

So much, perhaps, for Jung’s “collective unconscious”.

She concluded, however: “Once the debt to Nature is totally forgotten and when we do not feel we owe her any flesh or seed, there is no need to catch the wren dead or alive . . .”

Happy solstice, and don’t spend too much of Christmas immersed in the teeming viral myths of the internet.