Celebrating The Wran In Dingle…

Color, Commotion, And Tuppence–It’s Like Carnival In Ireland

We followed the wren three miles or more
three miles or more, three miles or more
We followed the wren three miles or more
at six o’clock in the morning

I have a little box under me arm
under me arm, under me arm
I have a little box under me arm
a penny or tuppence’ll do it no harm

— From “The Wren Song,” a traditional Irish song

Dec. 26, officially St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland, is traditionally known as “Wren’s Day,” or, more colloquially, “The Wran.”

Dating from the 1800s, early celebrants would have hunted a real wren, killed it, and tied it to a holly branch or pole to parade around town. From door to door these “wran boys” went, wren on display, begging for money to bury the “evil bird.” The funds were then used to hold a dance for the whole town.

Why the lack of mercy to one of the most innocent birds?

Stories from Irish folklore fail to present the wren in a good light. The most popular tale (that’s believed to have started the tradition) goes back to Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland. On one occasion, as Irish troops prepared to advance on Cromwell’s sleeping soldiers, a wren perched on one of the soldier’s drums made a noise that woke the sentries just in time to save their camp.

Today, no birds are harmed in the celebration of The Wran. A fading tradition, “wran boys” gather in only a handful of places around the country. But, for the town of Dingle, County Kerry, Dec. 26 is a major date on the social calendar.

Starting Christmas Eve, and often right up to noon on the big day, men gather in local pubs to hand-weave their traditional straw costumes (“rigs”) in a process that takes hours.

Come Wren’s Day, thousands of spectators line the streets of Dingle to watch this spectacle of men, dressed in rigs and brightly colored costumes, take over the town.

Starting at noon and going on until the early hours of the following day, The Wran is a blaze of color and a lot of noise, thanks not only to the accompanying musicians’ fife and drums, but to the collection boxes the wran boys shake. Rather than paying for a dance for the whole town, today’s funds go to local charities.

Be warned. Innocent by-standers will often get swept into the parade or chased down side-streets. “It’s like Ireland’s version of Carnival,” my friend Alison, a Kerry native, recently explained.

As a child, Alison made the trip to Dingle every year with her family. She recalls being both terrified of the revelers and in awe of their beautiful costumes.

Efforts have been made in recent years to revive this dying tradition. For the last 20 years, Sandymount in Dublin has been running a big Wren’s Day fundraising event. And, as part of its September harvest festival, the town of Listowel, County Kerry, hosts an Annual All-Ireland Wren Boy Competition.

But for a true sense of the spirit of The Wran, follow the crowds to Dingle.

Lynn Mulvihill

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