In 2010, a special team from the European Union’s European Habitats Directive commission traveled to the Slieve Foy Mountain in Ireland’s Cooley Peninsula to make a very special and very unusual announcement. The Sliabh Foy Loop trail in the forested area was to receive special protection under EU law, designed to protect the habitat of its native residents: Leprechauns.
The Irish leprechaun had received an elevation of status from being a purely mythical creature to being recognized as an official species by the European Union. Perhaps that was the start of the process that led to Brexit?
Either way, the legend of the leprechaun was given a new lease on life after decades of depictions in the media often seen by the Irish as obtusely derogatory.
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The Leprechaun – A ‘Little’ Backstory
The legend of the leprechaun is perhaps one of the most authentically-Irish of stories that has ever been told. The short stature, red beard, green waistcoat, green breeches and the all-important tall, green top hat have become virtually synonymous with the Emerald Isle and its people.
But how much of what we think we know about the Irish leprechaun is true and how many presumptions are fallacies or convenient, racist descriptions perpetuated by money-hungry Hollywood?
Is the pot of gold part of the original myth? Can the story of the red beard be traced back faithfully? How about the green clothes? Surely, they have not been made up… right?
One of those three features that we unfailingly associate with the Irish leprechaun is, sadly, a modern-day construct. Take a moment to consider which of them you believe is the culprit, and find out if the luck of the Irish rubbed off on your guess as we delve into the history of this fascinating creature.
The Origin of the Leprechaun Name
There is no single source name which can be wholly attributed the honor of being the root of the modern English word, ‘leprechaun’.
The Irish word ‘leipreachan’ is thought to come from the Old Irish name, ‘luchropan’, which is a combination of ‘lu’ (small) and ‘corp’ (body). Alternatively, ‘leithbragan’ also exists in Irish, and it is an amalgamation of ‘leith’ (half) and ‘brog’ (brogue), which alludes to the common portrayal of the leprechaun as repairing a single shoe.
The leprechaun has also been known as the lepreehawn, lioprachan, leprehaun and lubrican. The last of these was the first allusion to the mythical creature in the English language and was first used in 1604 by the poet, Thomas Dekker.
The Irish Leprechaun in Legend
It was in the 14th century that the book, Echtra Fergus mac Léti (Adventure of Fergus, Son of Leti) was written. It is this volume that is cited as the debut of the leprechaun on the literary world.
The Character of the Leprechaun
In that book, the protagonist has fallen asleep by the sea when he is woken by the sensation of being dragged towards the water. He wakes and seizes the three diminutive sea sprites that are attempting to drown him.
This anarchy-laced edge to the leprechaun’s character is a common theme that runs in many of the stories about them. In most versions, that trait is shown as more of a roguish propensity toward mischief and trickery rather than the homicidal intent of the original story.
Author and expert on Irish folklore, David Russell McAnally, states that the leprechaun is the offspring of an “evil spirit” and a “degenerate fairy” and is “not wholly good nor wholly evil”.
Another account, found in the book, ‘A History of Irish Fairies’, suggests that they were the “defective children” of fairies whose appearance and disposition made the outcasts from that society.
The tale of Fergus, son of Leti, also introduces another important element of the leprechaun legend – that they will grant three wishes to the person who captures them. Fergus is granted the boon and one of the gifts he asks for is the ability to breathe underwater.
Through other myths and legends passed down from the Irish storytellers of yore, we know that leprechauns love their solitude. That does seem to be a departure from the rampaging trio mentioned in Fergus’s adventures cited above, though.
On the other hand, a leprechaun’s solitary existence does not bar him from his love of a good time. It is said that they are happiest when dancing and will find any excuse to gulp down some ale and indulge in a lively jig.
The Leprechaun’s Pot of Gold
Perhaps the most popular element of the leprechaun’s tale relates to his pot of gold. Leprechaun legends say that these creatures stow away the golden treasures they have collected through the ages in little pots.
The award-winning Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, said that this bounty was not earned by the leprechauns but came from uncovered caches found buried in the ground, and dated back to times of conflict. These pots were then buried in remote spots and only the leprechaun who buried it knows its location.
There is one exception, though; when a rainbow forms, its ends touch the earth where the pots of gold are buried. That is where the myth of finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow originates.
Leprechauns and Shoes
Rather at odds with the tale of the riches is the fact that leprechauns are often depicted as shoemakers or menders. It is said that it is the sound of the tiny hammers beating little nails into the soles of shoes that alerts you to their presence.
However, locating a leprechaun even with the sound of the hammer to guide you is said to be a nigh impossible task.
Why are leprechauns so obsessed and adept at mending shoes? Well, that has to do with their love of dance. Apparently, their frequent and fervent bouts of dance wear away the poor soles of their tiny dancing shoes and every leprechaun is constantly preparing his footwear for when the next urge to break out in an energetic effusion of energy hits.
The Leprechaun’s Appearance
The leprechaun has always been depicted as a diminutive character. He is always male, often red-haired and is more likely than not to sport a red beard, too.
While the first mention of the Irish leprechaun suggest that they are associated with the sea, the majority of Irish myths and legends tell us that the elusivee creatures live in wooded areas, sometimes in caves and even in gardens.
These characterizations of the Irish leprechaun are faithful to the original tales from the Eire.
What Clothes Do Leprechaun’s Wear?
Don’t feel too bad if you didn’t know that the Irish leprechaun originally did not wear a green outfit but a red one; almost no one realizes that fact until they do a little research themselves!
Acclaimed author and Irish folklorist, David Russell McAnally, describes the leprechaun as a figure about three feet high, clad in a red jacket with an Elizabethan ruff at the neck. He is clothed in red breeches that are buckled at the knees and below that, the creature wears stockings which are either gray or black in color.
McAnally goes on to describe the leprechaun’s hat as worn cocked in a style common in the 19th century. He also says that the leprechaun wears a frieze overcoat in the rainy season that allows it to camouflage itself into the background so well that you would be unable to located it unless you espied the cocked hat.
William Allingham wrote in the 1700s that leprechauns appeared elderly, wizened and bearded. On their noses rest eye glasses and they wear silver buckles on their hose. A leather apron and a partially-repaired shoe completes the ensemble.
Samuel Lover described the leprechaun in 1831 as wearing a red square-cut coat that is richly embroidered with gold thread, together with a cocked hat, shoes and buckles.
When Yeats had an opportunity to indulge in the history of this legend of his native land, he stated that there were two types of fairies; solitary ones like the leprechaun and those that lived in groups. The former wore red jackets and the latter wore green.
He further described the red jacket of the leprechaun as having seven rows and seven columns of buttons. Yeats’s leprechaun had the uncanny ability to balance himself upside-down on the tip of his pointed hat and spin around about that point. He also made particular mention of its inclination towards mischief.
As you can see, there is only general consensus between the various versions of the leprechaun’s clothing that experts on Irish legends have left us. There is also the matter of geography, at least according to McAnally.
He wrote that the native leprechauns of the four different regions – the North, Tipperary, Kerry and Monaghan – could be distinguished by the color of their accoutrements and the objects that they carried with them.
Logheryman leprechauns were from the North and wore a red military coat above white breeches. They shared with Yeats’s creature the love of standing upside-down on their pointed hats, which McAnally described as high and wide-brimmed.
Tipperary was home to the Lurigadawne leprechaun, known for its red jacket of antique design that had peaks all around. This leprechaun brandished a sword that could also double as a magic wand.
The Luricawne leprechauns of Kerry were cheerful individuals with faces so torrid that they matched their red jackets. They donned cutaway jackets which had seven rows of seven buttons each.
In Monaghan, you would find the Cluricawne leprechaun who wore a green vest underneath an evening coat with swallow tails. White breeches, black stockings and shiny shoes completed the lower half of the outfit. On his head would be a cone-shaped, brimless hat which could double as a weapon.
Leprechauns in Popular Culture
Hollywood has been at it again, exploiting race and perpetuating stereotypes in the search of a quick buck. The Irish diaspora has long complained that their depiction in the media is nothing short of a series of caricatures and racist simplifications.
Perhaps no single part of the problem bears greater blame than the depiction of the Irish leprechaun.
The Leprechaun in Film
You would have been hard-pressed to find a film where a leprechaun was the main character (and the title character) before 1993. That year, the film, Leprechaun, starring Warwick Davis was released.
Featuring the mythical Irish creature as a murderous, rampaging maniac, it performed surprisingly well at the box office, taking in almost $9 million in ticket sales against a budget of under $1 million. Despite the fact that it performed well, the film that was Jennifer Aniston’s debut on the big screen was severely panned by critics and even deemed to be the worst performance of Aniston’s career.
It cast dwarf actor, Warwick Davis, in the starring role. Davis was fresh from his success as the Ewok, Wicket, in George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, as well as major roles in the hit films Labyrinth and Willow.
Davis reprised his role for all five sequels, the latest of which was released 10 years after the original in 2003.
The Leprechaun on the Small Screen
The controversial American TV series, American Gods, has been regaling audiences with distorted versions of myth and religion for one season now, and has been renewed for another season next year.
The storyline follows the ‘Old Gods’ – those that have been worshipped in mankind’s ancient and recent past – as they struggle for the attention and reverence of today’s generation whose gods have become technology and the media. Among the ancient magical creatures that make their presence felt in the new world is Mad Sweeney, a leprechaun.
Mad Sweeney was a character from Irish lore who was not actually a leprechaun but a king cursed to wander the world in isolation and madness until he is killed by a spear. The American Gods version of the character is a leprechaun.
He is played by Canadian actor, Pablo Schreiber.