We are mere days away from St. Patrick’s Day. Rivers around the nation have been dyed green in honor of the upcoming holiday. Items bearing the words “Kiss me, I’m Irish” have been sold by the dozens and soon fine (and some shady) drinking establishments will be packed with green clad patrons. Some may even be dressed as the lucky leprechaun.
The leprechaun story has long been a beloved aspect of Irish lore. Their legends were part of the Irish oral tradition long before written folklore in the form of epic poems were written in the High Middle Ages. Leprechauns are believed to be a part of another example of notable folklore. They are known to be members of the fairy family.
Leprechauns are known as the cobblers of the fairy world. Their name is also linked with the old term “’leath bhrogan,” which means shoemaker. While we think of these creatures as imaginary, belief in them, and other closely related fairies, was actually widespread throughout Ireland. This is one of the reasons that this icon is now so ingrained into Irish culture, even today.
What’s in a Name?
Their name is thought to come from the word “luchorpán,” meaning small body. This comes as no surprise since they are thought to be only 2-3 feet tall. However, research published in 2019 suggests that the word Leprechaun may derive from the Luperci thus associating them with the Roman festival of Lupercalia. Alternatively, according to some scholars, the word leprechaun comes from the ancient Irish-Celtic god and cultural hero, Lugh. Lugh was originally the god of the sun and light, and then he became a great warrior ruler of ancient Ireland.
Lugh's stature (literally) diminished over time as Europe became more Christianized. He had been considered a “giant” among men and as his significance diminished amongst the people, so too did his height. He was eventually transformed into Lugh-chromain, meaning 'stooping Lugh'. Further, he soon inhabited the underground world of sidh (shee) where all the other gods were relegated. Such a transition occurred as people forgot their traditions and embraced new religions. Lugh thus became a fairy craftsman, and from there, the 'leprechaun'. A tiny fairy-goblin in medieval folklore.
Leprechaun-like creatures rarely appeared in early Irish mythology. Scholars point out their legends only became prominent in later folklore. Leading up to the 700’s Ireland was in its Golden Age. It was during this time that monasticism spread, and monks diligently began recording Irish history, myth, and folklore.
Narratives of these Leprechauns first emerged in the 8th century, coinciding with legends about tiny water-dwellers circulating among the Celtic people. As such, Leprechauns have another ancient source of inspiration, small water sprites of Celtic mythology. These elves or fairies, known as lúchoirp or luchorpáin.
The earliest known reference to the leprechaun appears in the 8th or 9th century saga known as the Echtra Fergus mac Léti ('Adventure of Fergus son of Léti'). The text contains an incident in which Fergus mac Léti, King of Ulster, falls asleep on the beach and wakes to find himself being dragged into the sea by three lúchorpáin. He captures his abductors, who grant him three wishes in exchange for release. Conversely, some legends reveal that Fergus was not given three wishes but was taught the sprites swimming skills instead.
Another possible source of inspiration for the leprechauns are the terrible monsters the lupracánaig who appear in the 12th century CE Lebor Gábala (“Book of Invasions'). Alternatively, there are the clúracán (or cluricaune). They are male spirits seen in broader European folklore who are believed to haunt cellars. They live alone and often dressed in fine red clothes. Additionally, the clúracán sometimes carried a purse full of silver coins. A clúracán is small in size but large in appetite for his two favourite habits are smoking and drinking. He is reported to be lazy, and his preferred dwelling is a well-stocked wine cellar. Here, even though he will help himself to the finest vintages, he does, at least, scare away thieving servants. The clúracán shares similarities with the brownie of Scottish Gaelic folklore.
Over the years, the history of leprechauns has become associated with everything green. They are now depicted as old men dressed in a hat and suit of this color, wearing buckled shoes, or smoking a pipe. However, this was not always the case. In fact, you may be surprised to know that they were originally depicted as wearing red. Further, they had been dressed in this color for many years.
Over time, they have evolved into the green-wearing guys we have come to know and love today. Many theorize that this is due to the general popularity of the color green throughout Ireland. This is, in part, because of its prominence on the Irish flag, as well as the widely used name, the Emerald Isle. Whatever the reason, green has become synonymous with leprechauns and St. Patrick’s Day alike. Legend also says that there are no female leprechauns, and their seemingly impossible origins only add to their magical and mysterious qualities.
The Traditions and Beliefs Surrounding Leprechaun Folklore
Pot of Gold
One crucial element of the leprechaun story is their famous pot of gold. They are known to retain and store their cherished pots. They traditionally hide this treasure at the end of a rainbow. This means that humans must catch them in order to find this fortune since it is impossible to actually locate the end of a rainbow. In some instances this pot of gold is said to be a cache of gold left over from an ancient war. Other legends relate that it is the Leprechaun’s hard-earned wages from fixing shoes. Personally, if someone stole my hard-earned wages I’d be pretty mad too. Don’t be greedy!
Many humans looking for fortune also seek to gain Leprechaun gold. Beware- these teeny men are also known to be tricksters. They are reported to deceive humans so it may serve as a warning against greed. Some even believe that they hide their gold merely to lure in the unsuspecting greedy jerks. Then when granting their captors three wishes, Leprechauns often lead them astray instead.
In some instances, the leprechaun story states that capturing these small creatures will secure a wee bit of luck in addition to three wishes. With this in mind, they have become correlated with the “luck of the Irish.” This is one of the reasons they remain so popular today.
Sights and Sounds
Listen carefully, Leprechauns can often be heard tapping their tiny cobbler hammer in the distance. This may signal keen listeners that they are near. Further, they can be heard dancing away to traditional Irish music. Leprechauns are even known to play instruments while dancing a little jig.
The typical modern representation of a leprechaun as a little man sitting on a toadstool with a red beard and green hat comes from a mix of elements seen in wider European folklore. This depiction is not part of the traditional Irish leprechaun character. Today, the leprechaun story has evolved, and they have gained fame for their portrayals in popular culture, from the cheery man on cereal boxes to the scarier variety in movies. Yet, their roots are inevitably Irish and many visiting the Emerald Isle can capture a bit of this magic themselves. On and around St. Patrick’s Day, many dress up as the wee folk, but searching for these fairies is a fun activity all year round. Whether you head to Limerick on the lookout for these little fellas or visit the National Leprechaun Museum in Dublin to see this legend come to life, there are many amazing things to do to celebrate these creatures today.