Akron Irish: Lá an Dreolín (Wren Day)
By Lisa O’Rourke
Men were marching down the main street in a small village, looking both determined and frivolous. What was striking was their appearance. They were unrecognizable, not only from each other, but really, anything mundanely human.
They had crudely assembled outfits woven together from what looked like stalks of wheat, topped with large matching conical hats. The overall effect was an insurrection of Children of the Corn.
These were the Mummers, on their annual parade through the streets of Dingle, occurring each December 26. I experienced a bit of buyer’s remorse at what was then, my burgeoning enchantment with Ireland.
I may have gotten these people completely wrong! My confusion was compounded on another St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland, when a knock at the door revealed a group of boys, disguised in a variation of what my Grandma used to call a “tramp” costume; dirty, ragged clothes, with faces covered in dirt or another mask. They played a song or two on the tin whistle, sang and were rewarded by my husband with some money, which send them scurrying off to the next house.
The experience, happening also on December 26, was a variation on the same theme as the straw men, but was a little more satisfying than the horror of large people dancing around completed covered in some stalks of wheat. It still left me asking why?
One of the things that we Americans cannot resist about Ireland are the ties to an older culture. We are still newcomers to the cultural arena, and I am not sure how some of our institutions will hold up. How is Black Friday is going to age?
So, Wren Day had me in its grasp, seeming both old and deeply strange. Some of the strangeness of these old practices comes from multi-layered origins. It is nothing new to hear that many of the pagan holidays were absorbed and transformed into Christian ones.
The early Christians in Ireland were canny operators. They knew that they could not convert directly, so they added a god to the many and whittled away at the many gods while transforming times of celebration into ones with a Christian focus.
But in Ireland, it feels like the connection to the Catholic world is still fresh and not completely secure. The traces of old beliefs are at the surface. Late December was celebrated well before it became Christmas.
The Winter Solstice was a significant point in the calendar for people who lived so connected to the earth. What is the shortest day of the year but the return of daylight to us, had a heightened effect on people long ago.
To our agrarian ancestors, it represented hope. The sun was coming back, the cycle returned. Irish archeologists are finding more and more of the ancient Irish monuments have a strong relationship to the Winter Solstice. The best example being Newgrange, with its amazing alignment to the sunrise which directs a beam of sunlight into the middle of the monument on the solstice.
So, we have our celebration timeline, but how does the wren fit in? The Christian version of the story tells that the wren betrayed St. Stephen, whose feast day falls on December 26. Another story has the appetite and noisy beak of the wren causing a Viking camp to awake prematurely, thus destroying the Irish element of surprise and leading to defeat.
Either of these faults could lead to the wren being persecuted. However, there is a paradox, because while the wren had a few possible missteps, it was a venerated bird in ancient Europe, called the king of birds. Many cultures had a strong mistrust of most birds, with the wren and the robin transcending that negativity.
They did more than transcend, it was considered extremely bad luck to kill a wren in multiple countries, including Italy, France, Ireland and England. There was a one-day moratorium on that bad luck, December 26. The old ritual of Wren Day was that the wren was hunted, killed and festooned upon a ribboned bundle of holly and ivy. Poor wren!
First, on the symbolism of the wren: it is said to be the first and loudest bird to sing in the morning, here we find its association with the sun as it is its chief herald or ‘king among birds.’ Its name in Irish, dreolín, is noted for its connection with the words for a druid (druí) or magic (draoi-, draoicht); here the name is thought to derive from contraction of the words draoi- and éan (a ‘bird), to mean ‘druid-bird’, or ‘magic-bird.’ Druids are thought to have consulted the song of the wren to divine omens and uncover secret truths, in this way they were seen as messengers of the gods. (1)
The above quote solved it for me. So, this was a venerated bird of the old druid order being absorbed into the Christian culture and given a newly minted bad reputation. Killing the wren on the day after the birth of the Christian King could have been a part of conversion, a rejection of the old ways.
But the old ways persist. The Mummers, the straw men, maintain their December 26th annual parade in Dingle, Co. Kerry. It is appropriate that Dingle is the home of the parade too.
Dingle is situated in the largest Gaeltacht area, where many elements of Irish culture thrive. What about other parts of the country? The wren is a tradition that is falling out of practice. While they no longer kill and parade the body of the wren, the other traditions of the parade and the boys persisted well through the last century.
In the 70s, it was common practice for neighborhood boys particularly, to get dressed up in ragged or crazy outfits and adopt a false face, by donning a pillowcase or wearing a mask. The boys travelled door-to-door singing and playing a few tunes.
Refusing to come to the door or give the boys some money would result in a prank being played on the house, like doors and windows being banged on. Old standards had that the money raised went for some kind of party. However, more likely now, the money raised for the wren is donated to anything from a local sports club or another charity like Trócaire, an Irish group focused on poverty.
Mysterious and odd as they can appear, our traditions define us. From the outside, they vary from the day-to-day, which is what makes them unique. Their origins make our practices unique to our groups. But what is really beautiful about traditions is what they have in common, a framework that allows us to connect, celebrate and enjoy. That is my wish for you in this Holiday Season.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please send any Akron events to Lisa’s email!