Hunting the Wren – a Manx tradition

“Hunting the Wren” is one of the best known Manx traditions and is still practised on the island in modern times having undergone a considerable revival in recent years. The dance is sometimes used by our Ringerike ceilidh band  and by the Hullabaloo English Barn dance band 

 

In the Isle of Man, many people come together on December 26th each year to perform a dance and sing a song on the streets of various towns including Douglas, Peel, Castletown, Port St. Mary, St. Johns, and Ramsey. The focus of the tradition is the wren, the “king of all birds” which traditionally is hunted and then displayed in the centre of the dance on a special pole. These days, of course, the bird is only a symbolic replica and its “cage” is represented by two decorated hoops at right angles to one another, mounted on a tall pole and decorated with greenery and ribbons.

 

The custom of hunting the wren is thought to have been common at one time across much of Britain and in parts of Europe, but it has only been sustained in the Isle of Man and Ireland, with recent revival also in parts of England. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate at the time, published a poem “The Wren Boys” in 2015, based on the tradition. The ritual recognises respect for the wren, which is explicitly referred to as the King of all birds in the Hunt the Wren song, and it is considered that the receipt of wren feathers brings good luck.

 

The tradition was recorded on the Isle of Man as far back as the 1720s, although it is believed to have been already an established ritual before that time. The melody for the song was first published in 1820, and the first known appearance of the words was published in the mid 1840s. At that time, it is possible that a real bird was hunted and apparently was buried in the churchyard, after which a dance took place. However by the late 19th century it was rare to actually capture a real wren; instead just the decorative pole was taken around the streets, which is what happens today.

 

The tradition of Hunting the Wren is these days commonly observed on St. Stephen's Day, December 26th (Boxing Day), but in years gone by sometimes the ritual was carried out on Christmas Day itself. Hall Caine was a novelist from the Isle of Man who became very famous in the early part of the 20th century. In his third novel, The Deemster, his first great success, he wrote about the tradition on Christmas Day as follows: 

 

“While the dawn of Christmas morning was struggling but feebly with the night of Christmas Eve, a gang of the baser sort went out with lanterns and long sticks into the lanes, there to whoop and beat the bushes. It was their annual hunting of the wren. Before the parish had sat down to its Christmas breakfast, two of these lusty enemies of the tiny bird were standing in the street of the village with a long pole from shoulder to shoulder and a wee wren suspended from the middle of it. Their brave companions gathered round and plucked a feather from the wren's breast now and again. At one side of the company, surrounded by a throng of children, was Hommy-Beg, singing a carol and playing his own accompaniment on his fiddle. The carol told a tragic story of an evil spirit in the shape of a woman who had pestered the Island in the old days, of how the people rose up against her to drive her into the sea, and of how she turned herself into a wren, and all on the holy day of St. Stephen.”

 

The dance is performed like this:

 

1. Form a large circle of couples. If possible, an extra person (often a younger child) holds a wren pole in the middle of the circle.

 

2. Join hands in a ring, with the lady to the right of the man in each couple.

3. Circle round to the left, with everyone swinging right foot over left and stamping on the first beat, then continuing clockwise for eight steps.

4. Repeat in the opposite direction, anticlockwise, for eight steps.

5. Ladies dance two steps forward towards the wren pole and shake their fists at it, then turn outwards and return to places.

6. Men do the same but finish with their backs to the centre and facing their partners.

7. Everyone swings their partner.

8. Men move past their partners to the right hand, and move on to the next lady, and swing once round, so that she is now in position on his right to begin again with the new partner.

As with most folk and traditional songs, there are many versions of the words which have evolved over the years as they have been passed down from generation to generation, sometimes recorded, sometimes not. One version noted here was written down from a company of “wren-boys” in 1843:

We'll away to the wood, says Robin to Bobbin;
We'll away to the wood, says Richard to Robin.
We'll away to the wood, says Jack of the Land;
We'll away to the wood, says everyone.

What shall we do there? says Robin to Bobbin;
Repeat these lines as above.

We will hunt the wren, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

Where is he? where is he? says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

In yonder green bush, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

I see him, I see him, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

How shall we get him down, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

With sticks and stones, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

He is dead, he is dead, says Robin to Bobbin.,
Repeat, etc.

How shall we get him home? says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

We'll hire a cart, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

Whose cart shall we hire? says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

Johnny Bill Fell's, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

Who will stand driver? says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

Filley the Tweet, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

He's home, he's home, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

How shall we get him boil'd? says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

In the brewery pan, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

How shall we get him in? says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

With iron bars and a rope, says Robin to Bobbin
Repeat, etc.

He is in, he is in, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

He is boil'd, he is boil'd, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

How shall we get him out? says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

With a long pitchfork, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

He is out, he is out, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

Who's to dine at the dinner? says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

The King and the Queen, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

How shall we get him eat? says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

With knives and forks, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

He is eat, he is eat, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

The eyes for the blind, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

The legs for the lame, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

The pluck for the poor, says Robin to Bobbin.
Repeat, etc.

The bones for the dogs, says Robin to Bobbin
The bones for the dogs, says Richard to Robin;
The bones for the dogs, says Jack of the land;
The bones for the dogs, says every one.

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
We have caught, St. Stephen's Day, in the furze;
Although he is little, his family's great,
I pray you, good dame, do give us a treat.

The best-known version in the Isle of Man is from the Manx National Song Book, arranged by W.H. Gill in 1896, in which the words were selected by Gill from the earlier publication in Volume XVI of the Manx Society’s publications of 1843, and it is possible to see many similarities (e.g. the story overall, much of the sequence of events, and, broadly, the characters involved in the story telling), but also some differences: Gill edited out some elements of the story, such as the iron bars, rope and pitchfork to give only 15 verses (he evidently thought that was enough!) – and there are some modifications to the storytellers such as “…said Robin the Bobbin” rather than “…said Robin to Bobbin”, and the slight alteration in the name of “Jack o’ the Land”. It goes like this:

 

We'll hunt the wren, says Robin the Bobbin

We'll hunt the wren, says Richie the Robin

We'll hunt the wren, says Jack o’ the Land

We'll hunt the wren, says everyone.

 

Where, oh where? says Robin the Bobbin

Where, oh where? says Richie the Robin....

 

In yonder green bush…

 

How get him down?...

 

With sticks and stones…

 

How get him home?...

 

In the brewer's big cart…

 

How shall we boil him?...

 

In the brewer's big pan…

 

Who'll come to the dinner?...

 

The king and the queen…

 

How shall we eat him?...

 

With knives and forks…

 

Eyes to the blind, says Robin the Bobbin

Legs to the lame, says Richie the Robin

Pluck to the poor, says Jack o’ the Land

Bones to the dogs, says everyone.

 

The wren, the wren is king of the birds

St. Stephen's Day he's caught in the furze

Although he is little, his family’s great

We pray you, good people to give us a trate!

 

In the 1830s there was significant discontent amongst the Island’s population regarding constitutional issues and in particular about the way in which people were elected to the House of Keys, the Island’s parliament. This disaffection was taken on board by a number of influential people including Robert Fargher (1803-1863), the editor of the Mona’s Herald newspaper, who published articles (or, as often as not, letters which were purported to come from members of the Manx public but had in fact been written by himself!) calling for constitutional change. In 1837, with feelings running high, a Reform Association was established, its aim being the overthrow of the House of Keys. At this time the traditional song “Hunt the Wren” was adapted to become "Hunt the Keys”,  first published in the Manx Sun and afterwards freely circulated throughout the island. The new song, one of a type of political satire known as “Broadside Ballads”, was published anonymously, but the author is thought to have been John Kelly, a Castletown man who was a member of the House of Keys. The first half of the version below was published in September 1837, and the remainder the following year.

I.

Let us hunt the Keys, says Jack Meary Vooar;
Let us hunt the Keys, says Juan Jem Moore
Let us hunt the Keys, says Davy St. Ann;
Let us hunt the Keys says the Union Mill man.

II.

They bridges won't build, says Jack Meary Vooar;
Granane is untill'd, says Juan Jein Moore ;
The chiels are no skill'd, says Davy St. Ann ;
And the churches are fill'd, says the Union Mills man.

III.

How can we capsize them, says Jack Meary Vooar?
By telling big lies man, says Juan Jem Moore ;
But dont mak a noise mon, says Davy St. Ann;
The Game Bill will suffice, says the Union Mill man.

IV.

Their house is too old, says Jack Meary Yooar;
They'll be easily sold, says Juan Jem Moore;
The Herald shall scold, says Davy St Ann-;
We'll all be enroll'd says the Union Mill man.

V.

They'll have a lease of it still, says Jack Meary Vooar;
But we'll sell the goodwill, says Juan Jem Moore;
Who'll swallow the pill, says Davy St. Ann ;
We'll demur to the Bill, says the Union Mill man.

VI.

The petitions get on, says Jack Meary Vooar;
I'll wait on Lord John, says Juan Jem Moore;
You're a delegate mon, says Davy St. Ann;
And I've seen No. 1, says the Union Mill man.

VII.

We've "Billy Ballure," says Jack Meary Vooar
As butter milk pure, says Juan Jem Moore;
I'm no varra sure, says Davy St. Ann;
No radical truer, says the Union Mill man.

VIII.

Oh where? oh where? says Jack Meary Yooar;
In Parliament Square, says Juan Jem Moore
Alicks no in the chair, says Davy St. Ann;
But old Caesar is there, says the Union Mill man.

IX.

Who'll be the new Key? says Jack Meary Vooar
M. Q. or E. G., says Juan Jem Moore;
Will they nevar tak me? says Davy St. Ann
The depot you made flee, says the Union Mill man.

X.

They'll have Balla Var-vane, says Jack Meary Vooar;
Back to Karrane, says Juan Jem Moore ;
But why not Baljean? says Davy St. Ann.
He's too cross in the grain, says the Union Mill man.

XI.

There's the Cock of the roos;, says Jack Meary Vooar;
And Sir Arthur the goose, says Juan Jem Moore
They're na vara douse, says Davy St. Ann;
But they'd bother the house, says the Union Mill man.

XII.

Why not Duggan or Duff? says Jack Meary Vooar;
They've both brass enough, says Juan Jem Moore
Is it siller or puff? says Davy St. Ann;
They'd look pleasant and gruff, says the Union Mill man.

XIII.

Why not Major or me? says Jack Meary Vooar;
They merit can't see, says Juan Jem Moore;
My fate's unco wee, says Davy St. Ann;
And Jack's helm's a-lee, says the Union Mill man.

XIV.

They won't choose a Rad., says Jack Meary Vooar;
The last was so bad, says Juan Jem Moore;
Things look varra sad, says Davy St. Ann;
Ta traa goll ne raad, says the Union Mill man.

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