I love old coins, like this English farthing I found recently in a shop in Carlingford, which had transformed into a necklace. The smallest of pre-decimal English coins, the farthing had a wren on it for many years, chosen to represent one of Britain’s smallest birds.
But in Irish culture the wren is actually a much more symbolic bird. Called a dreoilín in Irish, the little bird is celebrated once a year on the Day of the Wren – Dec 26th, or St Stephen’s Day (known as Boxing Day in Britain). There was a tradition that the wren had betrayed the hiding place of St Stephen, leading to his eventual martyrdom and so a sacrificial wren was to be hunted and punished each year, on the saint’s feastday. It is still celebrated every Christmas, in more somber style nowadays, by Wren Boys in Kerry and near us in Sandymount in Dublin: I’ve never gone to see them as my kids would probably be terrified by them.
Here’s the song I learnt to sing years ago on one visit to Kerry:
The Wran the Wran the King of all birds,
St Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.
Although he was little his family was great.
Cheer up old lady and give us a trate.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan.
And give us a penny to bury the Wran
The wren’s had a tough old time in Irish folklore, you can read a bit more at this link.
I’m still trying to find out why the English chose it for their smallest coin. Could they not find a bird of their own?