Mary-Elizabeth Briscoe

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Wren's Day

The day after Christmas here on the Dingle Peninsula is known as Wren's Day, or Wran's Day as its pronounced.  In order to fully grasp this ancient annual tradition an understanding of the history behind it is likely necessary.  I'll make it brief.

Wren's day, or more accurately, La an Dreoilin, the day of the wren, is linked to ancient midwinter festivals.  The wren was chosen because of the belief that the bird betrayed a group of Irish soldiers by tapping on their drums thus alerting Cromwell's army of their approach leading to the  massacre of the Irish soldiers.  On Wren's day, a wren was hunted, killed and placed upon a stick decorated with ribbons and paraded through the town.  Wren boys and musicians disguised by dressing in straw paraded through town singing the Wren's song(yes there is a wren's song) and going door to door to collect offerings of money or food.   At the end of the day, the wren was buried with a penny and a celebration or festival  was had using the rest of the collected offerings. Fortunately, they no longer use a bird in the celebration. So, in a nutshell that's the history.  Now for this year's Wren's Day in Dingle...

The day started pretty much the same as every day.  Dark and rainy.  We had been instructed by friends to get to one of the local pubs early so that I could photograph people getting their faces painted, then to go immediately down the street to another pub where I could get photos of some more famous people getting their straws before the parade.  I have to say, our new friends have been so kind to always be certain I am where I should be to capture the photos I might need for use in my next book.  So, off we went to the pub, and as we should know by now, nothing here happens when its supposed to.  Irish time has a clock of its own and as we've been told, "you can't expect they'd be punctual."  So, we sat in the pub with the face painter, owner and one or two other early birds.(pun intended). The pub's two rooms are dark, sparsely furnished with faded fabric benches along the walls and small black and wooden tables lining the floor in front of them.  The smell of decades of cigarrettes smoked  here cling to the fabric and hang in the air like a fine mist.  A small fireplace in the back room to warm the otherwise cold of the place lay empty and not burning on this day. It wasn't long before Christine decided to leave and see what was happening around town, leaving me to snap photos and scribble down notes.

One by one people dressed in rags, straw, and hats of all kinds began to trickle in.  A German woman and her family arrived dressed in their best green and white capes, pants, jackets and hats, her hair tied with green and white rags.  Its important to note that this particular pub was home to the Quay Wren, the area in town known as the Quay.  Each neighborhood or section of town has their own Wren group and colors. Green and white; red and white; blue and white and of course the most famous or biggest group, the Green and Gold.  The rooms were filling up as Julie, the face painter worked with the fastest percision I have ever seen for such an activity.  She lined people in a row like an assembly line and worked her magic.  Within minutes faces were colored green with various celtic designs in white while glitter sparkled from head to toe. And so it went as the boys with their drums and women, men and children with their tin whistles began playing away readying for the day ahead.  

Finally, our friend Nuala arrived and set to the task of lining people up for me to get good pictures and introducing me around.  I played the snare drum of one of the boys and Nuala photographed that.  It was fun despite the growing crowd, noise and little space left in the room.  I steadied myself against the wall and started snapping pictures when Des, the leader of this group handed me a flag, instructed me to head over to Julie for a face paint and prepare to march with the Quay Wren.  He shouted to anyone listening, "this is Mary-Elizabeth from Green Street-she'll be with us today."  The next thing I know I'm in the row of people in the face painting assembly line.  Despite requests for something small and simple, my face was quickly covered in green, white spirals on my cheeks and glitter, which, by the way, will no doubt be showing up for weeks.

Whisked out of the pub into the street and we were off.  Drums and tin whistles leading the way.  Men, women, children and even dogs dressed in all combination of costume marched through the streets, stopping here and there along the way.  Here and there meaning pubs, and of course a stop at the hospital as well.  Each Wren group collected money for a specific charity.  Ours was for the Coast Guard Life Boats.  So the Wrens carrying their buckets collected coins from people on the streets and in the pubs.  Drumming and whistles rang in the pubs upon entering but quickly came to a stop in order that we all have a drink and a chat. Householders along the route met us with mulled wine or hot whiskey to warm the chill that sets in after so many hours.  I have to admit, my initial participation lasted only five hours.  I needed some quiet space away from it all in order to attend the final events of the night, which at first found all the Wren groups on Main Street for one final gathering of music and dance.  

Midnight found us back at the pub where it all began waiting for the Green and Gold Wrens to bring the day's events to a close. Nuala had us situated in the perfect spot for photographs and once again lined up groups for the benefit of my photography needs.  It was an incredible experience.  Not simply observed but participated in which certainly changes the flavor.  Everyone comes together and in the safety of their costumes, their community, they play and enjoy in a most innocent childlike way.  It's really lovely.  I'm fortunate to have been included so that I could experience Wren's Day first hand.