Lore About the Wren

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  • Teideal (Title): Lore About the Wren.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 781503.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): none.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): Irish and English.
  • Catagóir (Category): lore; song.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): Esther Warkov.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 02/03/1978.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Washington, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): interview.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

Dreoilín, Dreoilín, Rí na nÉan

Joe Heaney: And you know how it got the name King of the Birds? The wren — how it came to be called the King of Birds? Well, long ago, there was a big race between all the birds, to see who would fly the highest. And of course the eagle was odds-on favourite to win. And the wren being a little bird, he jumped on the eagle’s back, and of course the eagle never felt him on his back. And the eagle went as high as he could, and he said, “I’m king of the birds!” And the little wren went off his back, up another bit, “No”, he says, “you’re not — I’m king of the birds!” And then the eagle followed him. And the wren — The wren, you see, can never fly above the wall. He was afraid of the eagle. And another thing, he was afraid of the enemies he made when he jumped out of the furze bush as Saint Stephen was passing. He was hiding from his enemy in a furze bush, and the wren jumped out and the soldiers looked in and found St Stephen in the furze bush. And Saint Stephen put a curse on him. “Never”, he said, “you’ll never be able to fly higher than a wall ever again”. And the wren never does. He can fly so low — probably because he’s small, but that’s the myth and the legend behind it.

Interviewer: How would you try to catch him?

JH: Well then, if we failed to catch him — which we often did, in the daytime — the thatched houses — the wren used to sleep in the thatch on the — outside, over the door of the houses in the thatched cottages. And we’d get a flash-lamp and shine the light into this little hole, and if the wren was there, he’d come out, the light would blind him, and you’d catch him then and put him into a glass jar, with a bit of ivy round it. And the following morning you went around from house to house in the village, or the next village, and you said:

Dreoilín, dreoilín, Rí na nÉan
Is mór a mhuirthín, is beag é féin
Lá ‘le Stiofáin a gabhadh é
Is tabhair dhom pingin a chuirfeas é.

The wren, the wren, the king of the birds,
St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.
Hurry up, woman! Hurry up, man!
Give me a penny to bury the wren.

As I was walking down the road
I saw a [wren]1 upon a stone
I lifted my stick, and I threw it at him
At four o’clock in the morning!

Dreoilín, dreoilín, Rí na nÉan
Is mór a mhuirthín, is beag é féin
Lá ‘le Stiofáin a gabhadh é
Is tabhair dhom pingin a chuirfeas é.

We used to do that every door, from door to door. We might get a penny or tuppence2, or something. Somebody might ask you to sing a song at the door. And you’d get more, then, by singing any old song — they might ask you to sing any old song, like I sang here last week. And the more you entertained them, it’s the more money you got. But you couldn’t stay too long in one house because you had to do the whole village before nightfall. And then, at nightfall, there’d be three or four of us, and we’d divide the money we got, you know… Sometimes, in other parts of Ireland, men would dress up as women, and the women would dress up as men, blacken their faces and go around; and the money they got, they’d have a good drink, because they were waking the wren. The wake for the wren, you see. Although you let the wren out, after the day — if he was still alive — you waked him then at night. This was a wake — but the wren was supposed to be killed, you know, after this.

Interviewer: Oh, really?

JH: Oh, yeah. And then you were waking him. The wake was plenty drink, and songs, you know, and all that.

Interviewer: With the money that you collected.

JH: With the money that you collected from house to house.

Interviewer: What would happen if you couldn’t get a wren? Would you —

JH: Well, if you couldn’t get a wren, you see, you might camouflage something. But you didn’t get the same money as if you had the real wren; you had to have the real wren or you’d get no money. Some people used to trim up a little potato, and make him look like a wren, with a match for a beak or something like that, two legs. But they’d have to — In my place, they’d have to see the wren jumping. Without that, you got nothing, they’d say “get off with you — you have no wren”.

Interviewer: And that was the only song that you used, when you knocked-
JH: That’s the only thing we used. And maybe somebody would have a… lilting match or something at the door, to get a bit more money, you know. They’d ask you to sing if they knew you could sing; you’d sing and they’d be dangling a sixpence — at that time sixpence was a lot of money, you know. And you’d do anything for that sixpence — that was a lot of money that time.


1. Joe actually says “hen” here but ‘wren’ is clearly what he means.

2. Twopence.

Elements of this story correspond to international tale-types; see A-T 221 Election of Bird-King and 221A Who can fly highest?

This was recorded while Joe was Artist in Residence at University of Washington.