What the Wren Knows (Grey Heron Nights 13)

Yesterday afternoon, a curious thing happened here in the hills of Connemara. A young boy got out of a car which was presumably driven by a parent, walked up our drive, and knocked on the door. We opened it to find that he was holding a live wren in a jar, with a few holes in the lid to let air pass in and out. In return for showing us the wren, we were apparently supposed to give him money.

Those of you who are familiar with the old Irish folk tradition of the wren boys won’t find this as surprising as others might. The wren boys used, on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day for the Brits), to catch a wren, tie it to a stick, and travel from house to house with it, asking for money. Given that the wren was never likely to survive this treatment, some version of a traditional rhyme was usually recited which requested ‘a penny to bury the wren’.

Why, you might wonder, was the poor wee wren so mistreated? No-one knows for sure, but there are various theories: (1) When the Irish forces were about to catch Cromwell’s troops by surprise, a wren perched on one of the soldier’s drums and made a noise that woke the sleeping sentries just in time, so saving Cromwell’s camp. (2) That it betrayed St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, by flapping its wings to attract his pursuers when he was hiding. (3) That hostility to the wren derives from the efforts of clerics in the middle ages to undermine the remnants of druidic reverence for the bird. (Mediaeval texts interpret the etymology of wren, the Irish for which is dreolín, as derived from ‘dreán’ or ‘draoi éan’ – the translation of which is ‘druid bird’.) Others believe that it’s actually a residue of some ancient seasonal practice honouring gods who required sacrifice, and that, like honouring the Winter Solstice, that ancient practice became attached to a Christian calendar and then subverted into Christian stories.

Who knows. The point is that, today, the old practice of acquiring a live wren is supposed to have died out, and fake wrens are usually used in the places where the old wren boy parades still exist.

 

Wren boys in Kilbaha, Co Clare, 1979

The shocking appearance of the captive wren in a jar resulted in a lively discussion at the dinner table last night. On the one hand, as someone who’s studied and worked extensively with folklore, my natural inclination is to be respectful of longstanding folk traditions. On the other hand, this one involves capturing a wren, sticking it in a jar (at least it wasn’t half-crucified on a stick) and, if it survived the day – which seems unlikely to me, frankly; wrens are tiny birds and there’s bound to be some element of shock – presumably setting it free. And although I understand the pride that people take in old folk traditions, and can also appreciate the bushcraft involved in being able to find and capture a wren, I really just can’t be doing with this one. Any folk tradition that involves harm or death to animals is a folk tradition that needs to be let go – or otherwise transformed.

I’m reminded, as I so often am in circumstances like this, of Leslie Marmon Silko’s remarkable novel, Ceremony. There is a passage in which her ‘medicine man’, Betonie, talks about the ceremonies and rituals which all humans must perform in order to keep themselves and the world happy and healthy. He stresses the need for them to change as the world changes, in order to retain their power and to connect with the world as it now is: ‘In many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing . . . only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong . . . things which don’t shift and grow are dead things.’ In the novel, Betonie’s respect for the old traditions, coupled with an awareness of the new world, enables him to create new ceremonies which bring true healing, and which keep humanity in harmony with a world which has changed.

This morning, I found myself thinking back again to that recent post I wrote about building a new folk culture. Much of that post was about myth and story rather than other folk traditions, but here’s an extract anyway:

Of course, folk culture is a term with a lot of baggage behind it, and back in the day it certainly had connotations of tribalism and insularity. British cultural geographer George Revill has this to say about how ‘folk culture’ was traditionally defined:

‘Conventionally, folk culture refers to the products and practices of relatively homogeneous and isolated small-scale social groups living in rural locations. Thus, folk culture is often associated with tradition, historical continuity, sense of place, and belonging. It is manifest in song and dance, storytelling and mythology, vernacular design in buildings, everyday artifacts and clothing, diet, habits, social rules and structures, work practices such as farming and craft production, religion, and worldviews. Researchers and collectors from the later 19th and first half of the 20th centuries formulated a notion of “the folk” as relatively untouched by the modern world and of folk culture as precious survivals and relics from bygone cultures transmitted orally down through the generations.’

But, more importantly, he also notes that ideas about what folk culture is and can be are changing:

‘However, more recent work recognizes the place of folk culture in the modern world as heterogeneous and emergent practice. … From this perspective, folk culture is evident in a multiplicity of local cultural reworkings, as individuals and social groups creatively make sense of the circumstances in which they live. Thought in this way as emergent and freely adaptable vernacular culture, folk culture can be urban or rural and can combine cultural elements from different places, from traditional and commercial and from past and present cultural practices. Conceptions of folk culture not only inform long-standing themes of landscape, region, and place within cultural geography but also speak to more recent concerns with identity, habit, indigenous knowledge, diaspora, heritage, authenticity, and hybridity.’

My reason for stressing the word ‘new’ when I’m talking about building folk culture relates to situations like our experience with the wren. We could do, perhaps, with a bit of ’emergent practice’ here. Colourful parades are one thing, but a live wren in a jar driven from house to house in a car so a child can knock on a door and ask for money? Traditions and practices have to change with the times – especially as we gain more knowledge and understanding, and develop our sense of what is ethical and appropriate. Otherwise, as Betonie suggests, the ceremonies become ‘dead things’. Once, human and animal sacrifice was an intrinsic and necessary part of most human religious practice. We’ve moved on a bit since then, and it seems to me that we need to move on from any practices and traditions, no matter how long-standing, that could potentially cause harm to other creatures.

And that’s something that I’m fairly confident the little wren in that jar knew all too well.

8 thoughts on “What the Wren Knows (Grey Heron Nights 13)

  1. My imagination sends up a scenario in which I ask the boy how much he expects to gather that day, and then offer to pay that amount to ransom and free the wren…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I am fascinated by this discussion of shifting folkways (intentional or just time drift). Very much builds on what I was exploring in my journal this morning about the rootlessness I feel because I am a child of the diaspora on a land that is not mine nor my people’s. And yet, who are my people? Thank you for these fabulous blog posts (and for your book).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes. I think the diaspora children hang in the balance. There’s more of a need there to create meaningful traditions, and so perhaps that’s where useful innovation might come – and yet it is so easy to pluck them out of the air, for them not to be rooted in the land, which I think they always must be.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Much as I love the old traditions, my heart was also going out to the wee bird. I love your idea of building a new folk culture and look forward to learning how it can be respectfully applied to how we live now. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Poor wren! I’m really surprised to hear folk are catching and exhibiting wrens to this day. I wonder how the RSPB and other authorities would react to that. I agree that it’s a good thing that, in general, we’ve moved away from rites that involve cruelty to animals. Within the polytheist communities there are big debates about whether animal sacrifice should be revived. Another different but related matter in relation to folk traditions is the debate about black face morris – should modern morris dancers stop blacking up because it causes offence to black people (due to the links with minstrelsy)?

    Like

    1. Well, of course, the ‘authorities’ and traditions are different in Ireland. And I am horrified at the idea of reviving animal sacrifice – or that it would even be taken seriously enough to be discussed. We are supposed to have grown since those days … a tendency to slavishly adhere to old traditions, good or bad, like that is why I often find such communities problematic.

      Like

Comments are closed