The wren, the wren, / The king of all birds. / St. Stephen’s
Day he was caught in the furze.
Although he was little, / His honour was great. / Rise up kind lady
and give us a treat.
Up with the kettle, / And down with the pan. / Give us a penny to
bury the wren.
A pocketful of money, / And a cellar full of cheer. / And we wish
you all a Merry
Christmas and a Happy New Year.
—as recited by Dennis Flynn
Listen to several differing versions of the Wren song here!
The wren is just one
of several Christmastime house-visiting traditions that continue
here today. Typically, children and/or adults will visit homes
within their community carrying around an effigy of a small
bird—the wren. Upon entry into a home, they usually recite a
poem about the wren and may offer some kind of performance, be it
song, joke, or recitation. Often the host will offer up food,
drink, or money for the visit. Unlike other house-visiting
traditions, there are no disguises involved.
The wren tradition is known to take place in
Ireland and England where, in previous times, wrenboys would hunt a wren, kill
it, and visit homes reciting a poem that asked for money to give
the bird a proper burial. A feather from the wren might be offered
to the patrons for good luck.
Several weeks ago I caught up
with Dennis Flynn of Colliers who has been involved with the wren
since childhood. He explains,
"Growing up we used to participate in a
tradition called the visitation of the wren. We never ever called
it that. That’s a very official title. We always just
referred to it as going around with the wren, or doing the
wren…. It was a Christmas visitation. We always took part on
December 26th which everyone nowadays calls Boxing Day. But we always
called it St. Stephen’s Day…. Basically the idea would
be that you’d go around on St. Stephen’s Day, as a
group of boys. I did it from when I was about 10 years old until
about 14….We weren’t doing it necessarily to preserve
any cultural tradition. We were entrepreneurial. We were kids and
this was the era of twenty-cent comic books…. So for us, it
was this opportunity to go around and visit some people and
entertain them a little bit, and make a few cents as
The wren stick, as Dennis calls it, describes an effigy of a wren,
drawn on paper or carved from wood and attached to a stick. The
wren sticks that Dennis made as a child would often take a beating
in harsh winter weather and so a new one would be made every year.
He described whittling a splinter of wood into a dowel and
attaching a bird to the top, hand-drawn and cut from a Tetley tea
box (photo courtesy Dennis Flynn). Another year, he recalled, his
wren was cut from a piece of thick wallpaper.
Dennis said he learned about the wren from his father who, in turn,
learned about the tradition from his father. Over the years in
Colliers the tradition has taken on various forms. Dennis spoke
about Colliers resident, John Ryan, who, along with other community
members, incorporated into the tradition, their own version of a
song by Tommy Makeham and Liam Clancey called
“Children’s Medley” which includes several lines
about the wren. Dennis recallled,
"There’s a line in there where they say, ‘Mrs.
Clancey’s a very fine woman, a very fine woman, a very fine
woman. Mrs. Clancey’s a very fine woman. She gave us a penny
to bury the wren.’ But John and all those guys would come in,
and if they went to Mrs. Murphy’s, well Mrs. Murphy would be
the very fine woman, or Mrs. Whelan would be the very fine woman.
So they customized it all the way along."
Today, the tradition continues in Colliers amongst some of the
youth. According to Dennis, it was a way to bring youth together
with older people within the community. He said,
"It’s one thing for me or you to go, as adults. But to
introduce the kids—the young people—to go, you have to
have a little impetus for them. So to say, ‘Oh, let’s
colour up a wren, and let’s go and tell this story, and
she’ll give you a few candy.’ Perfect. So before
you’ve realized it, you’ve indoctrinated them in the
culture of visiting…. And that’s exactly what it is.
You have literally introduced them into a rite of passage of
visiting people—of having a respect and an appreciation of
older folks and traditions without them realizing what’s
happened…. You’ve made it fun for them."
For Dennis, doing the wren during the Christmas season seems to
reflect some of the community values he holds dear:
"Being a neighbour meant more than physical proximity…. It
actually meant going and implicating yourself in their lives in a
positive way. And that’s what the wren visitation sort of
symbolizes to me, even today. It’s that ability to just take
an interlude in Christmas…. It’s that excuse to knock
on the door and do something pleasant and have that immediate