Each one is a work of art, crafted from the hands of fishermen, farmers, and a crew of volunteers in a tradition that has been passed down for generations.
The straw costumes for Wren’s Day in Dingle, Co Kerry, are the products of weeks of preparation in the lead up to Christmas.
An explosion of colour and music hits the streets today, Wren’s Day (pronounced ‘ran’s day’), in the one place the tradition thrives.
For the Green and Gold — one of four Wren groups in the west Kerry town, along with Sráid Eoin, The Quays, and Goat St — the process is taken very seriously.
“We have a small bit of pride in it,” says Fergus O’Flaherty of O’Flaherty’s Pub on Bridge St, headquarters of the Green and Gold.
Each straw is taken out individually and cleaned, the rough bits removed, before being placed in a bucket of water to soften the stalks, making them more pliable for the weaving process to make the skirts and capes and, eventually, the hats.
This year’s crop of oat straws from north Kerry is short and won’t be long enough to allow for the intricate ornamentation on the hats.
Efforts are underfoot to source longer straws but O’Flaherty is slow to reveal the source.
“All will be revealed in the fullness of time,” he says with an air that suggests any further probing won’t yield more information.
Next, some rope is tied to hooks from a centre point in the pub to the wall. Working from each end, two people begin to weave a line of straws, handed to them by the others, working to the weaver’s rhythm, until it’s wide enough to fit around the waist of a man or drape his shoulders.
The process is overseen by the watchful eye of Kevin O’Connor, who has been making the straws for the best part of 40 years. “I’m probably too particular. I say, ‘Do it well or don’t do it at all’ but all the helpers are well-trained now,” he says.
They joke — or maybe not — that the only way out of the Green and Gold is death.
Gearóid Ó Cinnéide is originally from Dún Síon and now resident in John St. “We always played our football with Sráid Eoin but we were always in the Green and Gold Wren,” he explains.
John St native Aoife Granville, a lecturer in music and folklore, based her PhD thesis on the tradition.
She says it predates Christianity and she suspects the hobbyhorse that leads each group could be a nod to Dingle’s Spanish links, dating back to the 1500s.
“It’s not that the Wren’s Day tradition hasn’t survived elsewhere, it’s more that it has survived in a particular way here,” says Dr Granville.
“Each of the Wren groups has particular colours and a lot of people wear masks, or prominent stories in the news might feature — a few years ago when Osama bin Laden was in the news, the football team went as the Tali Wren.
“Some people love being completely unrecognisable so you have the freedom to play some tricks or maybe dance around like you wouldn’t do if you weren’t.”
There are even celebrities, including legendary commentator Míchéal Ó Muircheartaigh, and RTÉ southern editor Pascal Sheehy, from Tralee.
“Everyone is equal in this Wren, except for our captain (Noel Ó Murchú) and no one takes a bit of notice of him,” points out O’Flaherty.
The Ball Night — that often went on for days — was always a traditional part of the Wren, funded by the money collected on the day. Nowadays this goes to local charities.
John Martin, one of the banner holders, remembers the last Ball Night at his uncle John Joe’s in the early 1980s.
“They used to go on for as long as people could last. I remember three of them in Ballybowler in 1980, ’81, and ’82, but they used to happen elsewhere before that.
“It came to an end because most of the lads emigrated and there was no one around to run the Wren.”
The wet summer was telling in the Barrack Heights on John St, where members of the Sráid Eoin Wren are dealing with damp straws and its distinctive mouldy aroma.
Unlike their rivals down the road, the straws are made in one night.
“If you’re from Dingle, you have to do it. It like asking does a salmon like going up a river, it just has to happen. It’s in our nature and has to be done,” said Declan Malone, who grew up on John St.
Mike Granville from Feothanach moved to John St in 1984 and fell in with the local Wren.
He recalls the group being quite weak at the time and struggling to make up numbers.
“The Goat St Wren was also weak and the Quay Wren wasn’t going at all. That didn’t start up again for about another five or six years when it was revived by David Donegan, after being dormant for about a decade.”
Another time, in the mid ’80s, he remembers the Goat St Wren had no whistlers and some of the Sráid Eoin crew fell in with them to make the round of the town.
“The camaraderie between Sráid Eoin, Goat St, and The Quays is very good but there’s some needle somewhere between the Sráid Eoin and the Green and Gold, I can’t put my finger on it but it’s there,” he says.
Their Ball Night used to happen on New Year’s Eve until that became such a huge event in Dingle, they changed it to another date.
“It’s an important tradition because it was always there, just like wearing straws, so we insist on doing it but the amount spent on it is fairly modest,” says Malone.
“It’s not the occasion of outrageous drunkenness it used to be and, if it is, it’s self-funded.”
Captain Pakie Begley recalls watching the men making the straws when he was a boy in the 1950s. “Back then they did it on Christmas morning. We used to come in and we’d get lemonade. When they put the costumes on they looked fierce,” he said.
Author and retired teacher Karl O’Flaherty, from Bridge St, returns from his north Co Dublin home most years for Wren’s Day with his family.
“Wren’s Day is more vibrant now than it ever was because the youth have taken to it and they don’t have to be cajoled into it.
“I think they also see it as ‘coming of age’ and it’s a great concept to be able to grab hold of that and stake out your heritage and there’s a sense of belonging to that and being ‘ón áit’ or from the place. It’s our identity really,” he says.