Dispelling Myths About the Mythical Leprechaun
So, what do you know about Leprechauns? They’re Irish, small, and magical, they love playing tricks and pranks, they’re an emblem of all St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, they love wearing green, love gold, have something to do with rainbows, and they’re imaginary. Nothing else to say (unless you plan on making a Lucky Charms joke,) right? Well, not quite. Let’s take a look at these assumptions one by one…
Your first assumption is definitely right: Leprechauns certainly are Irish. In fact, some people believe they’re the true natives of Ireland, along with the other “Fair Folk” or Faeries! The legend of Leprechauns are as old as any on the isle, though they’ve obviously changed over the years (no breakfast cereal was involved at the beginning at all.) Leprechauns are mentioned in Irish texts as far back as the 8th century, and not just in one part of Ireland, but all through the country. And with your second assumption—they’re small—you’re two for two! The origin of the modern word Leprechaun is the Gaelic word “luchorpán” meaning “small-bodied.”
Those third and fourth assumptions, that they’re magical tricksters, are right on the money again (no pot of gold pun intended.) W.B. Yeats (famous poet, but also an Irish folklorist,) separates the lighthearted gags that Leprechauns like to pull from the more serious tricks the Sídhe (pronounced shee) like to perform (like swapping human children for Changelings.) A perfect example is the belief that if you manage to catch a Leprechaun (no small task—pun intended!) you get three wishes…but you better be careful about the way you word it. Leprechauns will find any loophole you leave in your phrasing! (One story tells of a man who wished for riches beyond compare and his own island...except when the Leprechaun snapped it’s fingers he was wildly rich on a deserted island, with nowhere to spend it. He had to use his last wish just to get back to Ireland!)
Next, we have the first real error: Leprechauns have absolutely nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day beyond the fact they’re Irish! There is a (unofficial) Leprechaun Day, but it’s May 13th and more of a modern invention connected more to our cartoon, infantilized versions of the myth. Many Irish people aren’t fans of how common the simplified, caricature versions of this long-standing myth are in the cultural zeitgeist. As early as 1963, John A. Costello, former Prime Minister of Ireland, was even quoted as saying in an address to the Oireachtas (Irish parliament:) “For many years, we were afflicted with the miserable trivialities of our tourist advertising. Sometimes it descended to the lowest depths, to the caubeen and the shillelagh, not to speak of the leprechaun.” This desire to stop trivializing Irish mythology hasn’t gone away—as recent years have called more and more schools to look at their culturally insensitive mascots, even Notre Dame’s famed “Fighting Irish” Leprechaun mascot has been coming under fire.
After that, we all know the stereotypical Leprechaun look: green suit, red hair, gold buckles on their hat and shoes. While the color green (and red hair) has become associated with Ireland for a myriad of reasons (mostly religious and political,) the color originally associated with Leprechauns was red! As green became the color of Ireland over time, it became the color of the playful fairies, too. But those shoes you’re thinking of—those actually do point to a “truth” of their mythology. The basis of many a fairytale all across Europe, Leprechauns are the shoemakers of the Fey (as Yeats once said: “Because of their love of dancing, [faeries] will constantly need shoes.”) The word Leprechaun is even associated with an old Gaelic term: “leath bhrogan” meaning shoemaker, and it’s said you can find them by following the sound of their hammering. Many myths also claim they’re involved in Fey dances in another way: they’re also said to be extremely skilled musicians (maybe that tap, tap, tap is just their hard shoes!)
What about the pots of gold at the end of the rainbow? There’s a myth for that! Only modern stories paint Leprechauns as covetous, hoarding their gold--the original telling is more about humans and their greed. The Leprechauns are said to have procured their pots of gold long ago, when the invading Danes left their riches for the Leprechauns to guard when they left Ireland to invade yet another already occupied country. Ever the tricksters and proud Irishmen (there’s no record of female Leprechauns, and no explanation as to how this might work,) the Leprechauns hid the pots of gold all over the countryside. Since it’s impossible to actually find the end of the rainbow, the myth of the pot of gold at the end is said to be another way for Leprechauns to trick humans and expose their greed—they can go looking for someone else’s belongings, but they won’t find them! (And, if you manage to, be careful to watch the Leprechaun closely. They’re known for distracting humans and disappearing before you get any gold or wishes!)
Your last assumption (that they’re imaginary,) well, that’s up for debate. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s any proof of their existence (beyond ancient texts and tall tales in the Irish countryside,) at least a third of Ireland isn’t ready to dismiss it out of hand. In a 2011 survey conducted by Co. Louth-based whiskey producer, Cooley Distillery, 33% of Irish people polled believe Leprechauns still exist and 50% of those asked believed that Leprechauns at least existed in the past. These statistics actually aren’t that surprising--a small but fervent faction of Irish people at least passively believe in the Fair Folk, meaning that while they don’t claim to actively interact with faeries, they make sure to mind any customs regarding the Fey…just in case.
Ultimately, the Leprechaun is more than a cartoon used to sell sugary (though, delicious) cereal, but a part of a nation’s rich, folkloric history as much as their early kings and heroes. There’s a mischievousness, but ultimately playful air to them that we’ve come to associate with the Irish nation itself, with their love of storytelling and joking, music and dance. Like anything else, the Leprechauns (and the Irish) are a far more interesting and full story when you scrap the stereotypes and learn just a little more!
This post is part of a series. Read our last post, all about St. Patrick's Day in Ireland, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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