The custom of 'hunting the wran', or wren, was once common throughout Ireland, and the tradition is continued in some towns or villages on St Stephen's Day, 26 December. It involved a group of youths and men, who called themselves the Wren Boys, though in some areas they were also known as 'mummers'.

Wren boys in eighteenth or nineteenth century Ireland

The Wren Boys would go into the countryside where they hunted and killed wrens, one of which they would then carry through the town on a pole decorated with ribbons, wreaths and flowers. They would wear old clothes and paint their faces with burnt cork, going from door to door and singing or playing music as they asked neighbours for money to bury the dead wren, which they had displayed on the pole in the middle of an evergreen bush.

Those who gave money would often be repaid with a feather from the wren to bring them good luck. But if anyone did not welcome the Wren Boys, they risked having one of the dead wrens buried opposite their hall door, ensuring that they would have no luck for the next twelve months. Eventually all the dead wrens were buried with a penny. But the money collected by the Wren Boys was used to hold a dance that night for the whole town or village, with the wren on its pole the centre of the festivities.

The song of the Wren Boys is known throughout Ireland, in slightly differing versions. The following is usually sung in Cork:

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephens's Day was caught in the furze.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

Give us a penny to bury the wran.

Hunting the Wran in eighteenth-century Cork

Why the desire to hunt wrens? There are several stories that explain it. One comes from the time of the Viking invasion of Ireland, when Irish soldiers attempting to ambush a Viking camp were discovered when they disturbed a flock of wrens in the countryside. In a panic, the wrens fluttered their wings against the Vikings' drums and shields, rousing them all from sleep. This meant the Irish were defeated. This story has also been associated with an incident from 1690, during the Jacobite Rebellion.

The wren is also blamed for alerting the Romans to the hiding-place of St Stephen, whose feastday is on 26 December, and who became the first Christian martyr. Yet in Celtic pre-Christian mythology, the wren is celebrated as the 'king of all birds', which used its intelligence to win a power contest among all birds. Hearing that the bird which flew highest would rule over all the others, the tiny wren perched on the back of the mightiest bird, the eagle, and launched itself to fly higher when the eagle grew tired.

The Druids, pre-Christian priests, saw birds as symbols of the connection between this world and the next, and used their flight paths to help them predict the future. In the Irish language, the word for 'wren' is dreoilín, which some believe derives from draoi ean, or 'Druid bird'. This means that the custom of hunting the wran, and the stories of its betrayal of St Stephen, could date from the earliest days of Christianity in Ireland, when Irish people were being encouraged to destroy pagan symbols. The wren boys would beg for money to bury the bird, on the grounds that it was thought to be evil and un-Christian.

Another pre-Christian tradition is honoured in West Kerry, where a wooden horse's head is carried in the Wren Boys' procession. In ancient Ireland, horses were associated with kingship and fertility because of their connection with the greatest Celtic god, Lugh. They had huge social and military importance. Horse-worship, then, was another pagan symbol that needed to be 'buried' by Christian Ireland.

Wren boys ready to depart in Kerry

Those interested in the welfare of animals and birds will be glad to hear that no wrens are hunted or killed as part of the St Stephen's Day celebrations nowadays, though fake wrens may still be carried in procession. Many come to see the Wren Festival in Dingle, Co. Kerry, every year; Dublin, too, holds celebrations on this day. The wran is also hunted in Irish communities abroad, such as that of Newfoundland, Canada. The custom is also found on the Isle of Man, and in parts of Wales.

Nowadays, the money collected by the Wren Boys is usually given to charity. Some Wren Boys still wear suits made of straw, which, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were used as disguises by so-called Whiteboys - subversives at the time of Ireland's agricultural wars. If the Whiteboys could not use straw to hide their identity, they also had the habit of covering their faces with burnt cork to hide their features. To this day, then, the Wren Boys remind us of Ireland's religious and political history.