The ‘Wran Boys’ of Old Cork

The ‘Wran Boys’ of Old Cork

Illustration of Cork Wren Boys by Cork Artist: Daniel MacAlise. Taken from the book: Ireland: ‘Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, & c’ Vol. 1, 1841, p24, by Mr. & Mrs. S.C. Hall.

In times gone by on the morning of December 26th, St. Stephen’s Day, when most Corkonians would be drowsily recovering from over-indulging in food and drink the previous day, the old custom of the ‘Wran Boys’ would be taking place.

According to tradition, for several weeks before Christmas, crowds of local boys and girls could be seen peering from bush to bush in search of the ‘tiny wren’. 

When one was discovered, the boys and girls eagerly gave chase until they had caught and killed the ill-fated bird. 

During the hunt the utmost excitement prevailed; hilarious shouting, screeching and rushing, until the bird was eventually bagged, with as much enthusiasm and pride as the most experienced sportsperson having caught some bigger game.

Legend has it that on St. Stephen’s Day, the bodies of several little birds were borne about, in a huge holly bush which was elevated proudly on a pole. 

This bush was the object of much attention and admiration, in direct proportion, however, to the number of birds therein. 

It was carried through the streets and lanes of Cork in procession by a group of boys and girls shouting and roaring joyfully, as they marched along. 

Every now and then this curious procession would come to a halt outside some house, and burst into the well-known ‘Wran Boys’ refrain.

From house to house they went making a terrible hullabaloo, which brought people to their doors yawning, having been awakened from slumber. 

Illustration of Cork Wren Boys by Cork Artist: Daniel MacAlise. Taken from the book: Ireland: ‘Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, & c’ Vol. 1, 1841, p24, by Mr. & Mrs. S.C. Hall.
Illustration of Cork Wren Boys by Cork Artist: Daniel MacAlise. Taken from the book: Ireland: ‘Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, & c’ Vol. 1, 1841, p24, by Mr. & Mrs. S.C. Hall.

Willingly, they threw the comical chanting group some coppers, and sent them on their merry way to the next house. 

The words of the song often varied according to the wit or poetical capabilities of the leader of the party, but they usually went as follows:

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds, St. Stephen's day was cot in the furze;

Although he is little, his family's grate- Put yer hand in yer pocket and give us a trate.

Sing holly, sing ivy-sing ivy, sing holly… 

Richard Dowden, the Mayor of Cork in 1845, prohibited the hunting of the little bird because of cruelty. 

Many different theories have been put forward as to the origin of this custom. It has been suggested that the death of the wren symbolises the death of winter. 

Other writers have traced some connection between the Cork Wran Boys, the Rhodion Swallow Boys and the Crow Boys of ancient Greece. These apparently went about chanting similar begging songs.

The Druids are supposed to have regarded the wren as a sacred bird; this must have caused quite a stir among the Christian missionaries as they placed a ban on the little bird, and ordered its extermination.

The following extract is taken from the book: ‘Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, & c’ Vol. 1, 1841, p25, by Mr. & Mrs. S.C. Hall - eminent travel writers of the 19th century. (Courtesy: Cork City Library).

“As to the origin of the whimsical but absurd and cruel custom, we have no data. A legend, however, is still current among the peasantry which may serve in some degree to elucidate it. 

"In a grand assembly of all the birds of the air, it was determined that the sovereignty of the feathered tribe should be conferred upon the one who would fly highest. 

"The favourite in the betting-book was, of course, the eagle, who at once, and in full confidence of victory, commenced his flight towards the sun; when he had vastly distanced all competitors, he proclaimed with a mighty voice his monarchy over all things that had wings. 

"Suddenly, however, the wren, who had secreted himself under the feathers of the eagle's crest, popped from his hiding-place, flew a few inches upwards, and chirped out as loudly as he could, Birds, look up and behold your king.” 

It is also written that in ancient times when the Irish were about to make a surprise attack on the Danes who were deep in slumber, a wren alighted on a drum and awakened the sleeping sentinels just in time to save the whole Danish army from destruction. Due to this occurrence the little wren was declared a traitor and in consequence, was captured and killed.

It is also notable that in other parts of Ireland, the wren like the robin has the benefit of special favour, and boys refrain from robbing their nests, for they say:

The Robin and the wren Are God’s two holy men.

Finally, although the grand old Cork Wren Boys tradition is slowly singing its way into the archives of the past there may be some of our fellow Corkonians preparing for the big day; and if so, should they arrive unexpectedly at your door on St. Stephen’s Day – ‘Put your hand in your pocket and give them a trate! – at a safe 2 metre social distance of course!

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