“Jimmy! A car just pulled into the yard!” Sara was looking out the lounge window. She sounded worried.
I glanced up from my book in time to see a large man jump out of the front passenger seat of a small car. He was wearing a mask.
“This doesn’t look good,” I thought to myself as I got up from the couch.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon on Wren Day, the day after Christmas. It was nearly dark outside and we were already in our pajamas. Meg and her family were upstairs napping. We had planned a quiet evening at home eating leftovers from the Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners – crab cakes, lamb chops, beef tenderloin, and the like – before leaving early the next morning for Connemara and New Year’s Eve in Galway.
No one pulls into our yard by accident. We live in a forestry, down a narrow lane off a slightly wider road. A cattle grate guards our drive. The house can’t be seen from the road. The only people who come to our door are friends coming for dinner, the postman, or delivery men. You don’t just stop by our house to ask directions.
I was a little nervous as I walked to the front door.
Outside there was a large man in a long overcoat and a mask. Around him dance three little people, also wearing masks. Worse, the man’s mask looked like Donald Trump.
Now I was scared.
“What should I do?” I squeaked to Sara.
The day after Christmas is a holiday in Ireland, most of Europe, and the UK. In Europe and most areas of Ireland it is called St. Stephen’s Day. In the UK it is Boxing Day. But here on the Dingle Peninsula, it is called Wren Day, the traditional name. It’s pronounced “wran” hereabouts.
Wren Day, or Lá an Dreoilín in Irish, is an ancient tradition that most likely derives from Celtic mythology that celebratedSamhain,a midwinter celebration. A wren, known for singing all winter, is captured, put in a cage on top of a pole, and paraded around town accompanied by “Wren Boys” dressed up in masks, straw suits, and colorful clothing. Fifes and drums lead the way. They would all be led by a “Captain” with a sword. Strawboys carrying a box ask for donations to “bury the wren.”
In the past, the wren boys would also go from house to house to beg for pennies but, sadly, that tradition has almost disappeared.
There is even a song to mark the occasion:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
On St. Stephen’s Day got caught in the furze
So it’s up with the kettle and down with the pan
Give us a penny to bury the wren.
Wren Day would have been celebrated all over Ireland until the middle of the last century, but gradually it died out. Here in Dingle, though, the tradition goes on. The old ways are honored. But, fortunately for the wild bird population, the wren is now fake.
We had taken Meg and the girls into town earlier in the day to see the festivities. The parades were supposed to start at one, but it was now nearly two and the town was eerily quiet. We walked up Main Street but no one was about. “Irish time,” I think to myself.
“Let’s walk down the Mall and see if Grainne’s shop is open. She’ll know what is going on,” I suggest.
As we get to the bottom of the Mall, just at Bridge Street, we hear music coming from O’Flaherty’s Pub. When we round the corner, there is a mass of people dressed in green and gold costumes wearing skirts, capes, and helmets, all made from straw. Others were wearing brightly colored wigs and antlers. Santa Claus was wandering through the crowd. Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, the legendary eighty-nine-year-old “voice of Gaelic games” on RTE radio and television, dressed in a straw skirt and a flat cap, stands ready to follow the band around the town.
Straw-clad characters roam through the crowd, shaking their boxes and asking for spare change. I hand the girls a pocketful of small coins to contribute.
There are four or five wren groups in town, headquartered in various pubs. Costume making takes place in the pubs in the weeks leading up to the big day. A Captain is selected and is supposed to be the leader but, as a fellow said to me, “We don’t pay him much mind.”
People jam the door O’Flaherty’s. Fife and drum music comes from inside.
“Let’s go in,” Meg says.
“Ah, you’ll never get in there,” I say. “It’s too crowded.”
A few minutes later my phone vibrates; a text from Meg.
“Inside to the left in the snug. Having a glass. Make yourself small and squeeze in.”
Sara and the girls decline.
I squeeze through the door, muttering “Sorry, sorry.” The band is playing a tune, arrayed around an upside-down Christmas tree hanging from the ceiling in the central room. I find Meg in the snug and join her in a glass.
The band starts another tune and marches out the door to form up in the street. The crowd gathers behind the band, led by Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. The Captain raises his sword. The street goes silent. The sword comes down and the band erupts. Around the corner and up the Mall they go.
We turn and walk up Green Street to meet the parade at Main Street. As we reach the top, the band from Stráid Eoin, another wren group, turns the corner arrayed in Blue and White. The Green and Gold follows them down Green Street as the bands play competing tunes. As the day goes on, there will be more parades and more pints taken, long into the night.
We head back to our car in hopes of a quiet evening around the fire, in our pajamas, eating leftovers.
“Jimmy! Open the door! It’s Thomas and the kids from down the road. They’re here on a Wren Day visit!”
I open the door, warily eyeing the man in the mask.
Thomas and his kids enter the house, jumping around and causing a commotion. The two girls, nine and eleven, are dressed in princess gowns and wear lace masks. The six-year-old boy shakes the box for coins. He is Thomas’ constant companion in the cab of their tractor and even wears an identical hi-vis suit when he’s with his Da. Tonight he has a long coat and a Donald Trump mask. I slip five quid into his box.
The eleven-year-old plays a tin whistle while her sister dances a jig. Thomas grabs Sara and whirls her around the foyer in a wild dance. Meg and the girls peek over the banister, not sure what is happening.
And then they are out the door and into the car as we shout “Happy Wren Day!”
Thank you, Thomas. The tradition continues.