Hunting the Wren
“Without being really numerous, the Wren is common and well distributed in Man. Its haunts are very varied, a certain amount of shelter alone being essential, and the hardy little bird is at home among the heather and brambles overhanging the course of the mountain stream.”
(P.G. Ralph, “The Birds of the Isle of Man”, 1905).
The Manx share with their neighbors in Ireland and Britain a unique custom of the Christmas season – Hunting the Wren on Dec. 26, St. Stephen’s Day or Laa’l Steaoin. You may think this as an Irish custom, as Irish groups such as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem popularized “The Wren Song” in North America, but Hunting the Wren is as Manx as a Loghtan lamb.
There are many descriptions of this custom and many curious legends and theories as to its origin. Young men and boys would go out on St. Stephen’s Day to hunt and kill a wren, and tying the bird to a decorated bush carry it from door to door, playing music and dancing and asking for money “to bury the wren.”
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
We have caught, St. Stephen’s Day, in the furze;
Although he is little, his family’s great,
I pray you, good dame, do give us a treat!”
Here’s a picture of the Wren Boys in Ramsey in 1904, from Mr. Ralph’s book:
The custom is kept up today, though mainly as a dance, without no harm to an actual bird!
And here’s a little story in Manx and English about the wren from Ralph’s 1905 book.
“Keayrt dy row va ny ushaayn chaglym dy boiljaghey da y chooilley ere obbraghyn va’d son yannoo. Va’d loayrt unnane eck cheayrt, ginsh guoid dy eean va’d troggal, as ere cha mie va’d laboragh. Tra haink yn drean beg dy nish ere foddagh ee jannoo, dooyrt ee
Myr s’beg mee hene, myr keyl my chass,
Un ecan jeig ver ym lesh ass.”
“The birds all met together once upon a time to tell of all the great things they could do. They were speaking one at a time, saying how many young, they were rearing, and how good they were labouring, When the little wren came to tell what he could do, he [she, ed.] said
Though I am light and my leg is small
Eleven chicks I bring out for all.”
So here’s to the wren – and a Happy Christmas and Good New Year to All.
Nollick Ghennal as Blein Vie Noa erriu.