There are many theories behind how this tradition came about.
Some say “Hunting the Wren” is an Irish tradition that pre-dates Christian times. The tiny bird is captured and tied to a pole or placed in a jar. Local musicians and dancers would then dress in costumes and disguises and go house to house collecting money, food and drink for a party.
It was said that capturing the bird alive would bring a new and prosperous year ahead. As the king of the birds the wren occupied a prominent position in the druidic pagan religion. Sailors and fishermen believed those who possessed a wren feather would never be shipwrecked.
One version of the story tells that St Stephen was hiding in a bush from his enemies, only for his hiding to be revealed by the chattering of a wren. Another maintains that in the 700s during the Viking troubles, when Irish warriors crept up on the Danes to attack, a little wren beat out a warning by picking crumbs from the drum held by a sleeping Viking.
The myth most commonly told in Ireland to explain the festival is as follows; God wished to know who was the king of all birds so he set a challenge. The bird who flew highest and furthest would win. The birds all began together but they dropped out one by one until none were left but the great eagle. The eagle eventually grew tired and began to drop lower in the sky. At this point, the treacherous wren emerged from beneath the eagle’s wing to soar higher and further than all the others.
Nowadays in the few parts of Ireland that still keeps up this tradition, namely Co.Kerry & Co.Clare it is in the form of a parade in the town and not as focused on the house to house visits with a wren in tow!
The famous song about the wren:
The Wren, the Wren the king of all birds,
St. Stephens’s day, he was caught in the furze.
Although he is little, his honour is great,
Rise up, kind sir, and give us a trate.
We followed this Wren ten miles or more
Through hedges and ditches and heaps of snow,
We up with our wattles and gave him a fall
And brought him here to show you all.
For we are the boys that came your way
To bury the Wren on Saint Stephens’s Day,
So up with the kettle and down with the pan!
Give us some help for to bury the Wren!