taking our culture forward

Hunting birds in December with singing & dancing

Mon, 30 Nov 2020

In the eleventh in our series of articles about Manx music, this piece looks at two Manx traditions for December, both of which feature birds. This was recently published in the Manx Independent:

Our feathered friends appear frequently in Manx folklore, but December see two birds celebrated through song, music and dance.

One of the oldest and most curious customs in the Isle of Man happened on Laa’l Catreeney (St. Catherine's Day) on the 6th of December. Associated with Colby Fair in Arbory, “St Catherine’s Hen” was killed and men would carry the bird in a procession to the song, “Kiark Catreeney Marroo” before giving it a mock funeral. In English, the lyrics went: “Catherine’s hen is dead, You take the head, And I'll take the feet, And we’ll put her under the ground.” The feathers were taken for luck and the feet and head buried, before the rest of the hen was cooked and eaten, along with plenty of ‘jough’ (ale) to wash it down!

Later in the month, St Stephen’s Day (26th) then witnesses Hunt the Wren (Shelg yn Drean) - a long-standing tradition popular in communities all around the Island. Traditionally, young men hunted the tiny wren and its dead body was paraded in a decorated bush to a song, which commonly began; “We’ll hunt the wren, says Robin the Bobbin…” Feathers were again taken for luck, and the boys would go from house to house collecting money. The wren was finally buried with a mock funeral.

There are several theories why the wren was hunted. One story tells of a beautiful enchantress called Tehi Tegi who lured Manxmen to their deaths. After being banished from the Island by the mythical ruler Manannan, she was allowed to return just once a year in the form of the wren, with the condition that the men of the Island could take revenge by hunting her down with sticks and stones.

The circular dance for Hunt the Wren is an essential part of the annual community event nowadays, but, of course, the wren in the bush is not real. Accounts of the dance stem back to 1845 when Joseph Train noted that after the wren’s funeral, the party “formed a circle and danced to music which they had provided for the occasion.”

All being well, there will be several community groups out ‘hunting the wren’ this St Stephen’s Day, so look out for it happening in the streets near you. The dance is simple to learn and although there are many verses to the song, it’s handy to learn the final refrain:

“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St Stephen’s Day, was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family’s great.
We pray you good people to give us a trate!”

Kiark Catreeney Marroo” is the latest guitar tutorial film from Culture Vannin, and there is further information about both calendar customs here.