Irish tradition of troglodyte hunting on St. Stephen’s Day

In normal years. The St. Stephen’s Day holiday in Ireland may be all about sales, but it was traditionally the wren.

It is often said that Christmas in Ireland lasts not just Christmas Eve and Christmas, but days through January with special celebrations and observations extending the holiday season. On St. Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day, the troglodyte bird is acclaimed.

Why? The story goes that during the Penal Times there was once a plot against local soldiers in an Irish village. They were surrounded and about to be ambushed when a group of troglodytes pecked on their drums and woke the soldiers. The plot failed and the Wren became known as the “Devil’s Bird”.

On St. Stephen’s Day (December 26) in Ireland, a procession takes place where a pole with a holly bush is carried from house to house and families dress in old clothes and with blackened faces. In the past, a real troglodyte was killed and placed at the top of the pole.

This custom has largely disappeared, but the tradition of visiting house to house on St. Stephen’s Day has survived and is an integral part of Christmas.

Souvenirs of St. Stephen in Ireland

Saint-Etienne in Ireland is now devoted to sales. Image: iStock.

Here are the memories of a woman who celebrated the troglodyte on St. Stephen’s Day when she was a child:

We were never ready for them. They always arrived as an invasion of an outside world.

After the excitement of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day had ended, we usually felt breathless and disoriented, with waking up late and getting up early so as not to miss a thing! So when gangs of boys and young men invaded the yard early on St. Stephen’s Day, our whole house was caught off guard. Our parents quickly adapted and agitated, delighted with the spectacle. However, we children were intimidated, shy and even a little scared.

The Christmas scene in our house of hot fires, delicious things to eat, new sweaters and caps to wear, and socks full of surprises from Santy suddenly seemed shaken when strangers came to our door. These visitors were, of course, the Wren Boys or, as it is pronounced in rural County Limerick, the Ran Boys. They were still men. No girl was part of this tradition.

On St. Stephen's Day (December 26) in Ireland, a procession takes place where a pole with a holly bush is carried from house to house.

On St. Stephen’s Day (December 26) in Ireland, a procession takes place where a pole with a holly bush is carried from house to house.

Their loud and sudden appearance shocked us because we lived on a small road connecting the two parts of the parish and, apart from our house full of children, there were only three other quiet houses there. So all the unusual visits were surprising.

Now, in the early 1950s and 1960s, the practice of following the wren was quite common, but since it only happened once a year, we never really expected it. And what a gust that caused!

At the top of the courtyard, they came with much uproar and clamor. They often had music – maybe a whistle or a violin, and sometimes they traveled with a small dog adorned with a paper shuttlecock. But the outfit of the boys themselves! They wore old jackets and shabby coats with pieces of tinsel trailing their outfits. They often wore some kind of face paint or “agaidh fidil” and wore small holly bushes decorated with rags and colored paper.

Song of Saint-Etienne

They sang their song of the day loudly:

The Wren, the Wren
King of birds
Stephen’s day
He was caught in the gorse.
Standing with the kettle
And down with the pan
Give us your answer
And let’s go.

Our parents were waving the group inside out of the cold and they were standing there in our kitchen. Now we all relaxed as the guys answered questions they were asked, identifying who they were and where they came from while munching on a Christmas cake with cups of tea. They could do a selection of quick jigs on the violin before graciously accepting the few pieces my father put in their hands. And then they left, into the yard and out to the gate, taking our shy little hearts with them into the big world beyond our farm gate.

I remember many years, especially later, my parents were wondering if the weather wouldn’t be too bad for the Wren Boys to come to our house or it wouldn’t be worth it considering we were so off the beaten track. . And then the joy and the lift they gave us when they called. As we got older we were no longer intimidated by their loud and garish appearance. We got to see them for what they were – artists on the big stage of country life who provided fun and color and sang to each other in an ancient tradition.

How do you spend St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland?

* Kate Murphy, Tramore, Co Waterford. This story is an excerpt from “The little book of Christmas memories, A collaboration between the over-55s website GoldenIreland.ie and Liberties Press. It features an uplifting collection of over sixty nostalgic Christmas stories from well-known Irish authors and stories from previous Golden Ireland short story writing contests. All royalties from this collection will be donated to Aware, a charity that supports individuals and families affected by depression.

* This article was originally published in 2017.

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