The day after Christmas back home in Missouri includes waking up to a house strewn about with new toys, spending the day indulging on Mom’s Christmas dinner leftovers, and 60% off sales at all major department stores. In Ireland the day after Christmas is so much more!! December 26 is known as St Stephens Day ( La Fheile Stiofan) or The Day of the Wren (La an Dreoilin). The day for many starts out in Catholic Mass, as did mine in hopes i’d find a bit of spiritual explanation for this holiday. A day of a observation for the first Christian martyr, based upon the story of St Stephen who in 35ad was stoned to death by an angry mob for his faith in Jesus and then while be stoned prayed for his assailants souls to be forgiven by God (quite a guy!)
The story tells of Stephen being betrayed by a wren while hiding from his enemies…..a.k.a. The Day of the Wren…..which this day and the association with the wrens betrayal can also be found in ancient folklore of Irish soldiers who were approaching a Viking camp to drive out the intruders, and the betrayal by a wren that alerted the Vikings to the Irish soldiers. On December 26 in the old days, Irish boys would hunt wrens with stones and then parade them around town tied from strings (a tradition that died out around 1900).
However in some communities around the isle you can still find young men dressed in thatch parading around crafted wrens on strings in rememberance of the birds betrayal to St Stephen and the Irish.
The rest of this sacred day of holiday recovery could be spent on any number of traditions found across Ireland; not only parading young men dressed in straw, to children carrying toy wrens in cages and door knocking for pennies, but also discount shopping at the mall, charity soccer matches, catching up with friends at the local pub….and then there’s Fox Hunting!
In Kells Ireland for over 150 years, the hounds have been paraded into the town center at noon on St. Stephens Day for the annual Fox Hunt. Fox hunting in the traditional form we recognize, has been in Ireland since the English arrived and remains an important part of the rural culture and
tradition. Fox “hunting” is more about the tracking and the chase, with unarmed riders following the Master of the Hunt and his hounds over hills and streams, through fields and briars, with the fox most never being “caught” …but if so its more of a light afternoon snack for the hounds than a trophy for the “hunters”. For centuries the fox has been a pest to farmers and gamekeepers alike. Historically hunting with hounds has been in this part of the world since before the Romans arrived, evolving to its more recognizable form at the turn of the 17th century. Still considered vermin “offically” and legal to shoot, the art of the organized Hunt with the hound is controversial to some being banned in Scotland in 2002 and England and Wales in 2005.
This year as noon approached so did the rain, but that did not deter the riders or the crowd of 100s lining the streets. I chatted up a couple of local men who shared an umbrella as we watched the Master of the Hunt bring in the hounds. There were over 30 hounds (…never say dog btw…) beautiful and well behaved with the Whippet man close at hand. There is an old saying that the hound should fear their Huntsman, but love him more. It was very evident these hounds were well kept and loved.
These particular hounds, some say come from a blood line reaching back over 300 years from the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Each hunt club has a precise blood line traditionally theirs alone. Hounds are never sold or traded out of the club and when a hound is old and no longer able to hunt they are humanly put down so as to keep the blood line within the club only.
The Master of the Hunt and his Huntsmen finished their ceremonial glass of warm port, the horn was sounded, and off they went. I was invited by my new friends to “follow the hunt”. We proceeded to follow the masses of onlookers to the top of the high street to watch the procession of hounds and riders out of town, and then raced to the “jeep” to get in good position on the road. I rode with my new friend Eugene, a witty and personable local businessman/farmer from Navan, who quickly was behind the wheel and dialing up on the hands-free one of his mates to see which field the hunt was headed.
Over the past hundred years new homes and roads have been built and estates have been divided, so much time and effort by the Master of the Hunt goes into securing rights to cross lands not knowing for certain which direction the fox might go.
There were close to 100 cars and “jeeps”(anything with fourwheel drive in Ireland is called a jeep) loaded with families and friends following the hunt on the back roads out of Kells into the Meath countryside.
Many parked road side hoping for a glance of the chase across a 50 acre field or the faint blow of the Master’s horn. Lucky for me Eugene was fearless in his “jeep” heading out full throttle into rain soaked wheat fields following the riders to get an up close view of all the action.
oh….and then the day was ended properly with a couple friends and a hot whisky!