On St. Stephen’s Day a number of boys gather together and dress in old clothes, disguising themselves in a variety of ways, including fantastic head-dress in which gaily coloured feathers are often very conspicuous. Sometimes they use paint and false faces. If procurable they carry a dead wren – also decorated in a variety of ways.
It is told locally that the Danes once made a raid on the Irish coast. They placed the food on a drum and lay down to sleep. Some of the Irish came along and when the wren which they carried saw the food on the drum, it began to eat it, thus making a considerable noise on the drum. The noise awakened the Danes, who suddenly rose and succeeded in reaching their ships before the Irish could intercept them.
There appears to be a certain food to be eaten on that day. In olden times the people used to fast on that day, as they did and do on Christmas Eve. They were supposed to eat enough on Christmas Day so that they would not be hungry on the following day. Tradition says that if you eat meat on St. Stephen’s Day you will be in bad health for the three years afterwards. Long ago those “wren boys” used to get a slice of meat at each house instead of money. Theses slices were then often slipped consecutively to a rod carried for the purpose. The wren was sometimes carried alive in a glass jar.
St. Stephen’s Day is regarded as a special day for visiting friends.
Wren Boys’ rhyme:
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan
Give us a penny to bury the wren.”
When the day’s mission is over, all boys and girls concerned return home, bury the wren and divide the spoils of the day.
Collector: Dónal de Grás, Ardeevin N.S.
Informant: Senior Pupils in Ardeevin N.S., Cloonminda, Castlerea
Source: Folio 1089, Page 15-17. Irish Folklore Main Manuscript Collection