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Wren King Songs

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Wren Day, Wren Day, Wren Day, so Google can find it!

Wren Boys Wren King songs are known from folk song collections as early as 1776, while the custom of Hunting the Wren is first mentioned in 1696. Hunting the Wren was a very widespread custom among traditionally Celtic-speaking people in Brittany, Wales, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Ireland and England. Processions used to be organized throughout December and even until Twelfth Night (January 6th). The custom continues today especially in Ireland on Wren Day, December 26th (St. Stephan’s Day), when children and adults go visiting the neighbors and ask for gifts of food, money or alcohol (depending on the age of the participants, we hope), in exchange for seeing a captured wren. Many Wren Songs were long ago notated by folk music collectors, and now they have been recorded by the singers and musicians who remember them.

As a folk custom, Wren King songs have a great many variations and even room for creativity. There are at least eleven different songs, many with variations. They are numbered here for ease of reference. Many are known in both Celtic and English language versions. The titles are not very dependable, so it’s best to check the first lines. The main versions are:
• Scots English Cutty Wren songs which begin, “‘Where are we going?’ says Milder to Melder” jump
• Manx Gaelic Hunt the Wren songs which begin, “‘We’ll away to the wood,’ says Robin to Bobbin” jump
• Irish songs, including the Wren Boys Song which begins “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds....” jump
• Welsh Dryw Bach songs of which there are several, including Please to See the King which begins, “Joy, health, love and peace....” jump
• Breton versions, such as Maro al Laouenan or “The Death of the Wren” jump

All of these songs are traditional but it is sometimes hard to find a copy of the words, so some of them have been included here, to make it easier to sing the songs. Because many of these songs are associated with Christmas, they are commercially viable and can be bought on CD’s.

§ Actual Wren Song as sung by actual wrens
The specific type of bird being talked about here is the Winter Wren, also known as the Cutty Wren, with the Latin name Troglodytes troglodytes. All three of these names are important and relevant.

• Winter wrens are called that because they remain throughout the winter in a swath of northern countries. Winter wrens are native to North American, Europe and across Asia in China and Japan. Most insect eaters, including other wrens and most songbirds, migrate south in winter when insects are scarce but winter wrens often stay in the same area where they nest.
• They are called “cutty wren” because they have noticeably short tails. Cutty means “cut off, stubby”.
• They are called troglodytes because they are hole-dwellers. They raise their young and also retreat in winter to holes in masonry, wood or other heavy material, unlike most birds which build open nests on branches and abandon them as soon as the young are fledged. Winter wrens even share nest holes in winter, huddling together for warmth during particularly cold weather. This is probably why they have short tails, so that they can fit inside a nesting hole.

Although wrens would probably not sing at the Winter Solstice, they certainly sing beautifully when they begin courtship, as can be heard on this recording of a Winter Wren singing (with crows in background) on YouTube. This was recorded in Cornwall by Paul Dinning. They also make a very staccato rattling sound when they are disturbed.

Winter wrens seem particularly attracted to human dwellings, which are warm and sheltered. The “imperious” or rattling response may be what gives them yet another of their names. They have a name in most European languages which means “king” or “queen”, except in English where the name “wren” is possibly borrowed from a Celtic language. The etymology of English wren is “obscure” according to the Oxford English Dictionary which, however, may have . . . issues with Celtic etymologies for English words. #scots

Scots English Wren Songs

1. Cutty Wren Songs
These types are usually associated with the Scots. Cutty is a word specific to the Scots dialect of English, however, we don’t find any of these songs actually in Scots Gaelic. The earliest version of this group is recorded in Herd’s Scots Songs, first published in 1776 with words but no music (pp. 210-211). It begins with the line “‘Will ze go to the wood?’ quo’ Fozie Mozie.”

The version of the Cutty Wren song that is most widely sung now begins: “Where are we going? says Milder to Melder” with many variations on the names of the persons. A version of the words and music for the Cutty Wren (2) song can be found on Digital Tradition but with the words for a different song written underneath the music. The words are given here for convenience.

“Where are we going?” says Milder to Melder.
“Where are we going?” says the younger to the elder
“We may not tell you,” says vassal to foe.
“Away to the green wood!” says John the Red Nose.

“What shall we do there?” says Milder to Melder.
“What shall we do there?” says the younger to the elder
“We may not tell you,” says vassal to foe.
“Hunt the cutty wren!” says John the Red Nose.

“How shall we shoot her?” as above.....
“We may not tell you,”
“With bows and with arrows”

“That will not do, then”
“What will do then?”
“With big guns and with cannon!”

“How shall we fetch her home?”
“We may not tell you,”
“On four strong men’s shoulders.”

“That will not do then”
“What will do then?”
“In oxcarts and in wagons!”

“How shall we cut her up?”
“We may not tell you,”
“With forks and with knives”

“That will not do, then”
“What will do then?”
“With hatchets and with cleavers!”

“How shall we cook her?”
“We may not tell you,”
“In pots and in kettles”

“That will not do, then”
“What will do then?”
“In a bloody great brass cauldron!”

“Who’ll get the spare ribs?”
“We may not tell you”
“We’ll give em’ all to the poor!”

The song describes absurd plans to cut up the little thing with hatchets and cleavers, to cook it in a great brass cauldron or in one of the giant kettles that are used for brewing beer, and then to divide up the body as if the parts were enough food to feed an entire town. This is part of the “exaggeration” that appears in all versions of Wren King Songs. The song has many variations sung actually in England, and there is even a variation recorded in 1915 from the Orkney Isles that begins “We’ll aff ta the wids, says Tosie Mosie” with the title “The Brethren Three.”

There are several good recordings of the Cutty Wren on YouTube which make it easy to learn, such as the version of the Cutty Wren by Damh the Bard, with metal guitar, from the Tales from the Crowman CD. I like this because it sounds like they are going out to hunt something. There was also the Cutty Wren by Chumbawamba on the English Rebel Songs CD. It is this version that is said to have been sung at the Peasants’ Rebellion in 1381, according to the liner notes on the Chumbawamba CD. See Hunting the Wren for a discussion of this issue. Certainly Wren Songs were sung as an expression of hostility toward authority. My personal favorite version of the Cutty Wren is by Steeleye Span, from the Time CD. #manx

Manx Gaelic Hunt the Wren Songs

Manx Gaelic was and now is again spoken in the Isle of Man which lies between England and Ireland.

2. Hunt the Wren
These versions have much the same structure as the previous set, but many have lyrics in Manx Gaelic, in which the song is called Helg Yn Dreain. In English, these songs begin “We’ll away to the wood, says Robin to Bobbin.” The words in Manx Gaelic with the music were first published in A.W. Moore’s book, Manx Ballads and Music in 1896. The Helg Yn Dreain lyrics in Manx Gaelic with English translation are on pp. 64-67 and the music is on page 252 in the same book. People sing the English version now, or a shorter form of it.
Manx Gaelic

Hemmayd gys y keyll, dooyrt Robin y Vobbin;
Hemmayd gys y keyll, dooyrt Richard y Robin;
Hemmayd gys y keyll, dooyrt Juan y Thalloo;
Hemmayd gys y keyll, dooyrt ooilley unnane.

Cre nee mayd ayns shen? dooyrt Robin y Vobbin

Helg mayd yn dreain

C’raad t’eshya? C’raad t’eshya?

Sy crouw glass ayns-shid,

Ta mee fackin eshyn,

Cre’n aghyt yiow mayd
sheese eh?

Lesh maidjyn as claghyn,

T’eh marroo, t’eh marroo,

Cre’n aght yiow mayd thie eh?

Nee mayd cairt failley,

Quoi les vees y cairt?

Juan Illiam y Fell,

Quoi vees immanagh?

Filley ’n Tweet,

T’eh ec y thie,

Cre’n aght yiow mayd
broit eh?

Ayns y phann thie-imlee.

Cre’n aght yiow mayd ayn eh?

Lesh barryn yiarn as tiedd,

T’eshyn ayn, t’eshyn ayn,

T’eshyn broit, t’eshyn broit,

Cre’n aght yiow mayd magh eh?

Lesh gollage mie liauyr.

T’eh goit magh, t’eh goit magh.

Quoi vees ec y yinnair?

Yn ree as ven-rein,

Cre’n aght yiow mayd eeit eh?

Lesh skinn as aall,

T’eh eeit, t’eh eeit,

Sooillyn son ny doail,
Lurgyn son ny croobee,
Scrobban son ny moght,
Crauyn son ny moddee,

Yn dreain, yn dreain, ree eeanllee ooilley:
Ta shin er tayrtyn, Laa’l Steoain, ’sy connee:
Ga t’eh beg, ta e cleinney ymmoddee,
Ta mee guee oo, ven vie, chur bine dooin dy iu.

English translation

We’ll away to the wood, says Robin the Bobbin,
We’ll away to the wood, says Richard the Robbin;
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 the Bobbin,

We will hunt the wren,

Where is he? where is he?

In yonder green bush,

I see him, I see him,

How shall we get him

With sticks and stones,

He is dead, he is dead,

How shall we get him home?

We’ll hire a cart,

Whose cart shall we hire?

Johnny Bill Fell’s,

Who will stand driver?

Filley the Tweet,

He’s home, he’s home,

How shall we get him

In the brewery pan,

How shall we get him in?

With iron bars and a rope.

He is in, he is in.

He is boiled, he is boiled.

How shall we get him out?

With a long pitchfork.

He is out, he is out.

Who will be at the dinner?

The king and the queen.

How shall we get him eaten?

With knives and forks.

He is eat, he is eat.

The eyes for the blind,
The legs for the lame,
The pluck for the poor,
The bones for the dogs.

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
We have caught, Stephen’s Feast-day, in the furze;
Although he is little, his family’s great,
I pray you, good dame, do give us a drink.

The good people of the Isle of Man have the right idea. Except for the last two verses, each verse has the last two lines repeated, so that everyone can join in singing the song, even if they don’t know the lyrics. The song can be used as music for the dancing and it’s more fun if everyone can sing along.

A version with much the same lyrics but a completely different tune is published by Peter Kennedy in his book, as #78 (p. 188) with additional notes on pp. 196-198.

People don’t speak Manx Gaelic much anymore, so it is easier to find recordings in English. The English words are chanted by Joe and Winifred Woods on the MidWinter CD. This was recorded by Peter Kennedy and the complete version of Hunt the Wren is in the British Library collection.

Music and Circle Dance for Hunting the Wren
The song is also sung in English and there are three recordings made in the Isle of Man which can be seen on YouTube. These show the circle dance that was done to this song, as well as the way the wrens were set into double hoops. The recordings are not the greatest (it’s very windy), but they are very charming and they clearly show how the dance is done. The first video shows several sets of people doing a circle dance, and eventually it is possible to hear that the people are singing along with the musicians “in yonder green bush”. There is also a video of a circle dance and singing in a pub. This shows a very simple dance done to an accordion, with no words, and in the second part of the video, the song is sung in a pub, and the words can be clearly heard. Third, there is a very pretty recording of Hunt the Wren but the singers are not known.

Interestingly, it seems to be a Manx version of the song that made it to America and appears in Folk Songs of Old New England by Linscott (pp. 230-233) first published in 1939. Linscott recorded “Let’s Go to the Woods” from Elizabeth Wheeler Hubbard in Taunton, Massachusetts. There are a number of Wren King Songs recorded in the United States and Canada, though none were associated with either a ritual or a particular time of year. They seem to have been treated as children’s nonsense or as lullabies. The relationship of particular songs to particular times of year is still remembered in the Old World and is extremely important for understanding the context of the songs and rituals. Books of children’s nursery rhymes were widely circulated in the US but as far as I know none had music notated in them. “Let’s Go to the Woods” comes with a melody, so it was perhaps passed down through the family, though the possibility that someone had a copy of the Manx Ballads and Music book of Moore might also be considered.

3. Manx Air
There is also music for the Helg Yn Dreain labeled Manx Air. This was collected in 1843 from the dancing processions in the Isle of Man and it is available on a Manx website too, as Manx Air. The original source for this is the Mona Miscellany, p. 151.

There is also a dirge sung for the wren, known from Manx sources. This is discussed on the page about Burying the Wren which has just been updated to add it in. #irish

Irish Wren Songs

The earliest reference to Hunting the Wren is given in Aubrey’s Miscellanies in the form of antiquarian balderdash. Writing in 1696, he gives a rather unpleasant reference to wars between the Protestants and the Catholics with the explanation that:
Near the same place, a party of the Protestants had been surprised sleeping by the Popish Irish, were it not for several wrens that just wakened them by dancing and pecking on the drums as the enemy were approaching. For this reason the wild Irish mortally hate these birds, to this day, calling them the Devil’s servants, and killing them wherever they catch them; they teach their children to thrust them full of thorns: you will see sometimes on holidays, a whole parish running like mad men from hedge to hedge a wren-hunting.
We don’t know what they were singing in 1696 or even if they were singing at that time, but it soon shows up.

4. The Wren Boys’ Song
Also known as the “Wran Song,” “The King of All Birds,” or “The Wren in the Furze,” this song has the first two lines, “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephan’s Day, got caught in the furze.” Wran, spelled with an a is the usual spelling in Irish versions. The earliest reference to this song appears as music without words for Drolien, The Wren, in Volume 2 of Bunting, A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, 1809. The first verse of this song is given in the Golden Bough, Volume 8, page 320, recorded by 1876. The complete song is given on Digital Tradition as Wren Song with both words and music; however the song is often chanted not sung. One variation of the words follows here:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St. Stephan’s Day was caught in the furze;
Although he was little, his honor was great.
Jump up, me lads and give him a treat.

As I was gone to Killenaule
I met a wren upon the wall
Up with me wattle and knocked him down.
And brought him into Carrick town

Droolin, droolin, where’s your nest?
“T’is in the bush that I love best;
It’s in the bush, the holly tree,
Where all the boys do follow me.”

Up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wren.

We followed the wren three mile or more,
Three mile or more, three mile or more.
We followed the wren three mile or more,
At six o’clock in the morning.

I have a little box under me arm,
Under me arm, under me arm,
I have a little box under me arm;
A penny or tuppence will do it no harm.

Missus Clancy’s a very good woman,
A very good woman, a very good woman,
Missus Clancy’s a very good woman
She gave us a penny to bury the wren.

Notes on the language:
Droolin is the Gaelic word for a wren, actually Dreoilín, sometimes misunderstood as Rolley.
Missus Clancy must be the name of the mother of the Clancy brothers. They were among the first to record this song, so they sang it with the name of their own mother. A lot of people still sing it that way. Another variation is to sing “Sure and you’re a very fine woman, a very fine woman, a very fine woman...” or one could use the name of someone who was generous at the last house visited.

Two additional verses are quoted in the Golden Bough, Vol. 8, page 320, and localized to Ireland. These can be sung to the same tune.

My box would speak, if it had but a tongue,
and two or three shillings, would do it no wrong,
Sing holly, sing ivy--sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.

And if you draw it of the best,
I hope in heaven your soul will rest;
But if you draw it of the small,
It won’t agree with these wren boys at all.

An Dreoilín “The Wren” is the name of the song in Gaelic but I have only found the first verse of several versions in Gaelic. For example this verse was recorded in 1888:
Dreolin, dreolin, righ na n-eun,
Lá Steoafáin a gabh an t-eun.
Is beag é fhéin, is mór a mhuintir,
Agus dá ghabh sé capaíre déanfaidh sé rince.
The first three lines correspond to this verse in English, although there is no “furze” in the original Gaelic, which did not make any sense anyway. It looks like the word “furze” was pressed into service in a poor attempt to get it to rhyme in English. The last line is translated into English as: “And if he gets an oaten cake, he will make a dance.” This example is quoted from “The Holiday Customs of Ireland” by James Mooney, published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1889, Vol. 26, No. 130, p. 418.

There are many great recordings in English, with many available on YouTube. The Wren Song is sung by the Children’s Revels (Langstaff) Chorus on A Child’s Christmas Revels CD. This is No. 6 on that CD and one can hear them tapping the sticks (normally barrel staves), which some of the more raucous participants used to hunt the wrens, and possibly strong-arm their neighbors. Here the Children’s Chorus makes it all sound quite lovely. There is a very cheerful, happy version of the Clancy Brothers singing the Wren Song with extra verses from their 1969 Christmas Album, now on YouTube. There is another video on YouTube with the West Clare Wren Boys celebrating Wren Day. The gentleman with an accordion is wearing one of the straw hats that are typically made for the occasion. This is a really great video because it shows a variety of dancing which is not so fancy as some of the professional dancers. People are having fun here.

There is also music suitable for the procession and dancing in the evening played by the Chieftains, on the Chieftains Christmas: Bells of Dublin CD. It includes dance music for the evening’s revels (Arrival of the Wren Boys; Dingle Set-Dance; Wren in the Furze; Brafferton Village/ Walsh’s Hornpipe). Although this CD has some Christian songs on it, it isn’t morose. The entire CD is very bright and cheerful and it sounds like they are having fun. The Wren in the Furze by the Chieftains can also be heard on YouTube.

5. An Dreoilin is a different wren song in Gaelic which is described in Phyllis Kinney’s article. This has both the lyrics, though only the first verse is published by her, and a melody, which she gives as Tune 18. This was collected rather late, apparently by P. A. Walsh and first published in 1913 in the Fuinn na Smól. According to Kinney, the form of it seems much older, partly because it seems to be a Praise type of wren song, also known from Welsh examples. The first verse is:

Dreoilín a fuaras-sa thíos ar an ínse,
Fé bhráid carraige ’s carabhat síod’ air,
Do thugas-sa chúibh-se é a lanú ’n tí seo
’Gus gura seacht fearr um an dtaca so arís sibh.
The complete lyrics for An Dreoilín were given with an English translation, put together by several people including CaoimhínSF and I thank them for their work. There is now a copy of An Dreoilín at the ILF or Irish Language Forum site, scroll down to find it. #welsh

Welsh Wren Songs

Welsh Wren songs usually have the title Dryw Bach or Y Dryw Bach, “the Little Wren.” These songs are very old, though the oldest versions are known as fiddle tunes without words, so it isn’t absolutely certain that they were Wren King Songs, i.e. that they were connected to the ritual of hunting the wren.

6. Dryw Bâch music
Y Driw Bâch, as the spelling is in the original source, is known from the music book of Maurice Edwards, copied down in 1778. For Y Driw Bach we have the music but without words on the AlanorBangor blog. Scroll down to the Y Driw Bach entry, which was posted February 7th. This site gives a beautiful picture of the original music as it was notated, a pdf with the music written in modern notation and a wav file that can be used to help “learn the music aurally,” as they put it. This is an excellent site with good information, lucid explanations and all the text in both Welsh and English, which is much appreciated.

7. Hela’r Dryw
“Hunt the Wren,” has the first line “Ble rwyt ti’n mynd? meddai Rhisiart wrth Robin” or some variation on that. This translates as “Where are you going? said Richard to Robin.” It is similar to some of the other versions of wren songs in English, but it is sung only in Welsh, though there is an English translation of the words. An article by Llew Tegid in the “Journal of the Welsh Folk Song Society” (Vol. I, part 3, 1911, pp. 99-113) gives several variations of a similar song, for which he uses the title “Dibyn a Dobyn.” He gives the music for one version and three sets of lyrics. A later version of the song is recorded in a fabulous performance of Hela’r Dryw by Fernhill, singing in Welsh on YouTube. This page gives the lyrics in both Welsh and in an English translation. Fernhill consists of Julie Murphy, Andy Cutting, Ceri Rhys Matthews and Jonathan Shorland.

8. Can y Dryw Bach
We have the words for several Dryw Bach songs from Pembrokeshire, published in 1896. These are from a collection of Pembrokeshire Antiquities (pp. 46-49) as Can y Dryw Bach with a description of the context and rituals associated with them. This clearly describes a blessing ritual on Gwyll Ystwyll, Epiphany or Twelfth Night, January 6th (see Gwyll Ystwyll for an interesting explanation of that usage.) The lyrics describe hunting the wren, but no music is given in this source. However these types of songs are known to have been sung to several tunes and these are published by Phyllis Kinney as Tunes 2, 3 and 4. The first tune dates from about 1827 and the others are more recent. There is no English version of these songs though there are some translations. There are two songs given in the text; this is the one on p. 46 with a few emendations. The translation is by Walter Gill, who credits the assistance of C. W. Griffiths. The English translation of Can y Dryw Bach is published in a Second Manx Scrapbook along with a great deal of other Wren lore.
Welsh, Pembrokeshire Dryw Bach, p. 46

Dryw bach ydyw’r gwr
Am dano mae stwr,
Mae cwest arno fe
Nos heno’n mhob lle:

Fe ddaliwyd y gwalch
Nos neithiwr yn falch,
Mewn ’stafell wen deg,
A’i dri brawd a’r ddeg

Fe rhoed ef dan len
yn’r elor fraeth wen,
Rhubanau pob lliw
sy’n clymu y dryw,
Rhubanau’n bob tro
sydd iddo’n lle to.

Ti gei ginio falau a chan,
Ddaeth o’r berllan boreu dy’ gwyl Stephan,
Ti gei ginio o ddail hau gleision,
Ddaeth o’r gerddi bore heddy’,
Ti gei ginio ar geryg gwynion
Ddaeth o’r aber wedi swper.

O feistres fach fwyn, gwrandewch ar ein cwyn,
Plant ifenc ym’n ni, gadewch ni i’r ty,
O dewch, dewch yn gloi, ’n te dyma ni’n ffoi.

English translation (not suitable for singing)

Little wren is the man,
About him there’s a stir,
There’s an inquest upon him
To-night everywhere.

He was captured, the rascal,
Last night with rejoicings
In a snug pretty chamber
With his brothers thirteen.

He was placed ’neath a shroud
In a fair motley bier,
Ribbons all-coloured
Are tied round the wren,
Ribbons all twisted
In place of a house.

Thou shalt have dinner of apples and flour
That came from the orchard this morn of St. Stephen,
Thou shalt have dinner of green leaves of bay
That came from the garden so early this morning,
Thou shalt have dinner on shining white stones
That came from the brook after supper.

O fair little mistress, give heed to our plaint!
Young children are we, let us into your house,
O come to us quick or we’ll all run away!

The lyrics to a similar song are sung by Rowen and Gulston to the same tune as “Please to See the King,” see further down.

9. Please to See the King
This has the first line: “Joy, health, love and peace...” or “Good health, love and peace....” The song is known by many titles such as “The King,” “The Wren” or “Be all here.” The tune was recorded in 1981 from the singing of Dorothy and Elizabeth Phillips, although there is a version of the words, with a lot more weaponry, recorded by Swainson in 1886. According to Kinney (p. 105), the song retains the “metrical and rhythmic structure” of traditional Welsh poetry. It doesn’t seem to have been composed in English, because although the song is very charming, the fit of the words to the melody is very bad; however no Welsh original is known for these lyrics. The words and music for Please to See the King can be seen on Digital Tradition.

Joy, health, love and peace
Be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing
Concerning our king.

Our king is well dressed
In silks of the best
In ribbons so rare
No king can compare.

We have traveled many miles
Over hedges and stiles
In search of our king
Unto you we bring.

We have powder and shot
To conquer the lot
We have cannon and ball
To conquer them all.

Old Christmas is past
Twelfth tide is the last
And we bid you adieu
Great joy to the new.

There are many beautiful recordings of this song. “Please to see the King” is sung by the Revels Chorus on the Christmas Day in the Morning CD. Other versions that can be listened to on YouTube are “The King” by Steeleye Span on the Please to See the King CD and “The King” by Loreena McKennitt on the Drive Cold Winter Away CD.

A version of this is sung in both Welsh and English by Blanche Rowen and Mike Gulston. It’s track 2 on The Four Seasons album, along with a number of other songs of interest to Pagans including, for example, the Wiccan song Lady’s Bransle. Rowen and Gulston are really good and gifted musicians both vocally and instrumentally. They sing some of the lines of one of the Dryw Bach songs given above (as No. 8), using the same tune as is used for Please to See the King. The lyrics in both Welsh and English for Please to See the King/Dryw Bach can be seen on their domain and there is a translation of the Welsh verses at the end. The song Please to See the King/Dryw Bach can be heard on the Eilio site, which is their page on Bandcamp.

10. Can Y Berllan is another type of Welsh Wren Song. Kinney gives one verse and the music (Tune #6) for it. A set of lyrics in Welsh for the Can Y Berllan and a description of the custom are given on the Carmarthenshire Gleanings page, scroll down to footnote 41. This was sung at the wren ritual (visiting) which was done at Kidwelly, Carmarthenshire and was recorded in the manuscripts of J. Lloyd Williams. Here, a perllan is understood as a type of decorated bowl or board with a wren affixed to it, but the word appears in the previous wren song (No. 8, here), where it is translated as “orchard.” It may have represented a tree of some kind. #breton

Breton Wren King Songs

There are several Wren King songs in Breton with French translations, though it doesn’t seem that the songs were ever sung in French. The Breton songs are called some variation on Maro al Laouenanik or Maro al Laouenan. Laouenan means the “cheerful one” referring to a wren, according to Llew Tegid (p. 99). The French translations have the name La Mort du Roitelet, so both titles mean “the death of the wren.” The lyrics are known from two complete versions while the music is known in the form of four melodies with their refrains though only the first verse of each of these was published. The two-line verses can be combined with the various melodies to form complete songs. All are grouped together here under one number.

11. Maro al Laouenan or Maro al Laouenanik
These songs clearly have the elements of a Wren King Song, with the hunt, killing, and exaggerated difficulties. Here the exaggerations take the form of imaginary quantities of feathers coming from the little bird: “four railroad cars [it took] to carry his feathers to Nantes.” Despite the topic, these songs are identified as a type of berceuse, a song in 6/8 time with a soft melody like a lullaby. Wren King songs are sung as lullabies in the US, too.

The earliest publication of a Breton Wren King Song, but without the music, seems to be the Maro al Laouenanik in Melusine in 1877, p. 73-74, which can be read on google books. However there may be earlier rather obscure references to hunting a wren in the romances related to King Arthur, in both Breton and in English. The complete lyrics for another version of Maro al Laouenan in Breton can be read online at Wikisource, from Luzel’s Soniou Breiz Izel, vol. 1, p. 6 (with page 7, for the French translation) and also without the music. This book was published in 1890, though the song was recorded earlier in 1863 from Marie Clech. The lyrics for the Luzel version are given here for convenience.
Breton lyrics for
Maro al Laouenan
[from Luzel]

Ann dez-all o vale oann bet,
Eul laouenan em boa tapet.

Pa oa tapet, tapet a oa,
Oa laket er c’hraou da larda.

Pa oa lardet, lardet a oa,
Clasket ar c’higer d’hen lac’ha.

Ar c’higer hac he vevelienn,
Holl crient forz, war bouez ho fenn;

Na oant ket evit hon derc’hel,
Pa welas tont paotr ar gontel.

Pevar c’har hac hi houarnet
Zo êt d’gass he blun d’ann Naonet;

Ha c’hoas a zo chomet er gêr,
D’accoutri pevar gwele caër.

O tistreï ac’hane d’ar gêr,
Me am boa gwelet c’hoari gaer;

Gwelet ar fubu o torna,
Hac ar c’heillen o tiblousa;

Ar c’haz oc’h ober tro al leur,
Tric’houec’h logodenn euz he c’heul;

Tric’houec’h logodenn hac eur raz,
Soudenn ho dô buhez ar c’hâz!

Couskit aze, ma mabic me,
Ken savo ’n heol en bec ar gwez.

French translation
La Mort du Roitelet
[from Luzel]

L’autre jour, j’étais allé me promener,
(Et) J’avais pris un roitelet.

Quand il fut pris, il était pris, (de bonne prise,)
Il fut mis a l’étable pour engraisser.

Étant engraissé, il était engraissé,
On chercha boucher pour le tuer.

Le boucher et ses valets,
Tous criaient à tue-tête;

Ils ne pouvaient le retenir,
Quand il vit venir l’homme au couteau.

Quatre charrettes, charrettes ferrées,
Sont allées porter ses plumes à Nantes;

Et encore en est-il resté à la maison,
De quoi accoutrer quatre beaux lits.

En revenant de là (de Nantes) à la maison,
Je vis beau jeu (merveille:)

Je vis les cousins (moucherons) qui battaient,
Et les mouches qui enlevaient la paille;

Le chat faisait le tour de l’aire,
(Ayant) dix-huit souris à ses trousses;

Dix-huit souris et un rat;
Ils auront bientôt la vie du chat.

Dormez là, mon fils chéri,
Jusqu’à ce que le soleil soit au sommet des arbres.

English translation of the French translation (with help from google and Christian Souchon):

The other day I went for a walk,
(And) I took a wren.

When he was caught, he was well caught,
He was put in the barn to fatten.

Being fed, he was fattened,
A butcher was sought to kill him.

The butcher and his servants,
All were screaming loudly;

They could not hold him,
When he saw the man coming with a knife.

Four wagons, railway wagons,
[it took] to carry the feathers to Nantes;

And yet what is left at home,
[is] enough for coverlets for four beautiful beds.

Returning from there (Nantes) to home,
I saw a great wonder.

I saw a swarm of midges threshing,
And flies that removed the straw;

The cat walked around the area,
(Having) eighteen mice after him;

Eighteen mice and a rat;
They will soon have the cat’s life.

Sleep, my dear son,
Till the sun is in the treetops.

The music was published in the Musiques bretonnes by Maurice Duhamel in 1913 (pp. 113-115, nos. 221-224), which can be seen on the Musiques Bretonnes by Maurice Duhamel pdf on the University of Rochester website. The songs can also be seen on a couple of websites devoted to the music of Brittany but the websites are difficult to link to. Following are links to the four different melodies on the Son Ha Ton website of M. Quartel (direct links are given below), but the lyrics that appear on the same pages are incorrect. The website of Christian Souchon gives the lyrics in Breton but the French and English translations are sometimes for the wrong words. Both of these websites have little media players that play metallic renditions of the tunes.

Maro al Laouenan, Version 1
This version begins: “An de-all o vale oan bet, Eul laouenan em boa tapet,” and has the chorus “Tra la la la,” etc. The music for Marv al Laouenan, melodie 1 is posted on the Son Ha Ton website. It’s also in Duhamel, as No. 221 on page 113.
Breton lyrics

An de-all o vale oan bet;
Eul laouenan em boa tapet.
Tra la la la la la la
La la la la la la la la.

French translation

L’autre jour, j’étais allé me promener,
Un roitelet j’avais pris.
Tra la la la la la la
La la la la la la la la.

English translation of the French translation
The other day I went for a walk,
I caught a wren.
Tra la la la la la la
La la la la la la la la.

Maro al Laouenan, Version 2
Version 2 has an interlaced refrain, that is, the part in italics is repeated with every verse. The music for Marv al Laouenan, melodie 2 is available on the Son Ha Ton site. It’s also in Duhamel as No. 222 on page 114.
Breton lyrics

O chaseal er c’hoad on bet,
Birviken ennan n’arruan!
Eul laouenan am oa tapet
Birviken ennan, ennan, ennan,
Birviken ennan n’arruan.

French translation

J’étais allé chasser dans le bois,
Jamais là je n’arrive!
Un roitelet j’avais pris.
Jamais là, là, là,
Jamais là je n’arrive!

English translation of the French translation.
I went hunting in the woods,
Never shall I arrive there!
I took a wren.
Never ever, ever, ever,
Never shall I arrive there!

Maro al Laouenan, Version 3
This version appears to have the same lyrics as “Version 1” but with a different melody and a slightly different refrain “Tra li-la li, etc.” The music for Marv al Laouenan, melodie 3 is on the Son Ha Ton site and it’s also published in Duhamel as No. 223 on p. 114.
Breton lyrics

An deiz-all o vale oan bet;
Eul laouenan em boa tapet
Tra li-la li tra li-la li
tra li-la li tra li-la!

French translation, same as version 1, above.

Maro al Laouenanig, Version 4
Laouenanig, sometimes laouenanik, is a diminutive, “little wren.” This version has a rather different structure, with the first line of the verse repeated and then with the four line refrain following each verse. The refrain is partly in French and partly in Breton. The music for Marv al Laouenan, melodie 4 is available on the Son Ha Ton website and published in Duhamel, No. 224 on page 115.
Breton lyrics

Eun devez o pourmen oan bet,
Eun devez o pourmen oan bet,
Eul laouenanig ’m oa paket
Deus d’ar ger, Pier,
’Vit Gallig et Gallan
Ha versez dans mon verr’
Ha mar dout kontant!

French translation

Un jour j’etais allé me promener (bis).
Un petite roitelet j’avais attrapé...
Mens à la maison, Pierre,
Pour Gallic et Gallant (?)
Et “versez dans mon verre”
Si je suis content!

English translation of the French translation
One day I had gone for a walk (repeat).
A small wren I caught
A table at home, Pier,
To Gallic and Gallant (?)
Pour me a glass
And I am happy!

There was a performance that could be listened to on the internet of “Maro al Laouen” by Dunvel Ar Benn but it does not seem to be on the internet now.

An Dreoilín (2)
This is a perfectly delightful song which came up when I was researching An Dreoilín (“the Wren”), the Gaelic name for the Wren Boys’ Song, but this is not actually a Wren King song, that is, it has nothing to do with Hunting Wrens. Instead it’s a tragic story of a wren that gets killed by a cat.

The song An Dreoilín is written and sung by Sean Monaghan with the Maimin Cajun Band from Conamara But I can’t find his version of it now on YouTube. There used to be a page with the lyrics in Gaelic with an English translation, but it is gone now. [fuggle26]

The song is also known as the Dance of the Gaeltacht and there is a video on YouTube of all the students in the Coláiste na bhFiann Summer Courses in 2011, dancing the Dreoilín. The dance was composed by Debbie Nic Gabhann and it celebrates the Irish language. In fact it celebrates Gaelic culture and language in, um, Cajun style. But who cares? It’s great fun.

Singing Wren King Songs is part of the tradition of celebrating the (re-)birth of the Sun after the long night of the Winter Solstice. On the day after Christmas or St. Stephan’s Day (December 26), the festivities include Hunting the Wren, the procession and dancing which could be an all-day affair, and continue with Burying the Wren which was done with accompanying dirges. This might be followed with music and dancing in the evening. The explanation for why people would associate hunting wrens with the birth of the Sun at the Winter Solstice can be understood from the Celtic myth of How Lleu Llaw Gyffes Got His Name, which is part of the Mabinogion. Hunting the Wren appears to be a re-enactment of part of that myth, which tells how the Goddess Arianrhod gave birth to the Sun and the Moon.

I have added [or] between the Breton and French titles, and between the Welsh and English titles, to make it more clear what the titles are. And I would like to express my profound gratitude to all the people who have worked to make digitized copies of these documents available.
Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, ed. Peter Kennedy, Oak Publications, London, New York, 1975.
Pembrokeshire Antiquities, reprints from Amsang ein Tadau, The Antiquaries’ Column in the Pembroke County Guardian, H. W. Williams, printer and publisher, Solva, Wales, 1897.
Soniou Breizh-Izel [or] Chansons Populaires de la Basse-Bretagne, by F.-M. Luzel and Anatole Le Braz, Emile Bouillon, Paris, 1890.
Folk Songs of Old New England, collected and edited by Eloise Hubbard Linscott, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1993; original publication, The MacMillan Company, 1939.
Golden Bough by James George Frazer, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920 (12 volume edition).
Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, by David Herd, printed by John Wotherspoon, for James Dickson and Charles Elliot, Edinburgh, 1776. The book is usually referred to as Herd’s Scots Songs and is available at archive.org.
Manx Ballads and Music edited by A. W. Moore, G & R Johnson, Douglas, Isle of Man, 1896. Manx Ballads, Moore on google books.
Mona Miscellany, ed. by William Harrison, published by The Manx Society, Douglas, Isle of Man, 1869; on the internet as Mona Miscellany.
Miscellanies upon Various Subjects, by John Aubrey, original publication 1696; Reeves and Turner, London, 1890.
• Digital Tradition, a collection of folksongs, often with music. The best access is probably the sniff.numachi.com mirror.
Barzaz-Breiz [or] Chants Populaires de la Bretagne, ed. by Theodore Hersart de la Villemarqué, A. Franck, Paris, 1846. Villamarqué on google books.
Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, Vol. 20, s.v. wren, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989.
Mélusine, No. 3, 5 Feb., eds. H. Gaidoz and E. Rolland, published by Librairie Mythologique de Viaut, Paris, 1877.
Gwerziou ha Soniou Breiz-Izel [or] Musiques Bretonnes, Airs et Variants Melodiques des Chants et Chansons Populaires de la Basse-Breton, by Maurice Duhamel, published by Rouart, Lerolle & Cie., Paris, 1913. Musiques Bretonnes is on the University of Rochester site as a pdf.
• “Hunting the Wren” by Phyllis Kinney, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, Wales, Vol. 6, pp. 104-118, 2004, digitally on Hanes Cerddoriaeth Cymru [or] Welsh Music History [journal]. This https://journals.library.wales/view/1175725/1177095/111#?cv=111 can be read on the internet (but their link does not work sometimes).
• “Hunting the Wren” by Llew Tegid, Cylchgrawn Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin Cymrv [or] Journal of the Welsh Folk Song Society, published by the Welsh Folk Song Society, Bangor, Vol. 1, part 3, 1911, pp. 99-113. The early issues for years 1909-1912 of the Journal of the Welsh Folk Song Society are on the hathitrust site. Llew Tegid is a pseudonym for Lewis Davies Jones.
• “The Holiday Customs of Ireland” by James Mooney, published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1889, Vol. 26, No. 130, begins on p. 377. This is available on the internet, with the wren verse given on p. 418.

I hope everyone likes these beautiful songs, and a happy Wren Day to Celtic people and friends everywhere!

Here is a paper wren that can be used to make your own wren if you like.You can cut out the wren pictures and glue them together back to back, and hang them from a pole, to carry with you when you go around singing wren king songs.

Wren by Molly Brett
Wren by Molly Brett

© 2007, last updated 12/14/2021, http://piereligion.org/wrenkingsongs.html