The leprechaun is perhaps one of the best-known creatures in Irish folklore. Leprechauns are popularly depicted as little men with beards dressed in green coats and tall green hats. Other well-known beliefs about leprechauns include the pot of gold that they are said to keep at the end of the rainbow, and their mischievous nature. Whilst many are familiar with this general depiction of the leprechaun, there are other aspects of these Irish creatures that are less well-known.
For a start, there are a number of different theories regarding the origins of the word ‘leprechaun’. For example, one account states that this name may have been derived from the Irish leath bhrogan (which is translated as ‘shoemaker’). Another possible explanation for this name is that it comes from the word luchorpan (meaning ‘small body’). Yet another is that it is from the word lucharma’n (meaning ‘pygmy’). It may be pointed out that originally, the name leprechaun was used only in the north Leinster area, and that other regions of Ireland had alternate names for this creature, including lurican, lurachmain, and lurgadhan.
A leprechaun counts his gold in this engraving c. 1900. (Public Domain)
Leprechauns are considered to be part of the fairy family, and that they are the descendants of Tuatha Dé Dannan (translated as ‘Peoples / Tribes of the Goddess Dana / Danu’), who were a group of supernatural beings who invaded Ireland in the distant past. Interestingly, the existence of female leprechauns is not attested in Irish folklore. One explanation to get around the problem of leprechaun procreation is that these creatures are actually unwanted / deformed children of fairies that have been abandoned by the rest of the community, This may also serve as an explanation for the leprechaun’s notoriously grouchy, solitary, and untrusting nature.
Riders of the Sidhe. (1911) John Duncan. This is an imaginary representation of what the famous Irish ‘fairy people’ the Tuatha Dé Dannan (ancestors of the Leprechauns and other fairies) may have looked like. (Public Domain)
Whilst leprechauns are known to be tricksters, they are perhaps not as troublesome as their cousins, the clurichaun. According to Irish folklore, these lesser known relatives of the leprechaun are nocturnal creatures, and are prone to causing havoc. For example, the clurichaun are often depicted as emptying out entire wine cellars, and being drunk. In many stories, they are also said to harness livestock, including sheep and goats, and ride them around Ireland in the night. According to some folklorists, the clurichaun are not a type of fairy distinct from the leprechaun, but are leprechauns in their ‘night-form’. In other words, leprechauns experience a complete change of character when they get drunk after a hard day’s work.
An illustration of a leprechaun or clurichaun, cousin of the leprechauns. (1862) T.C. Croker (Public Domain)
Speaking of work, leprechauns are believed to serve as cobblers to other fairies. Therefore, they are said to always have a hammer in one hand, and a shoe in the other. Moreover, the noise made by leprechauns hammering nails into the soles of shoes are said to be audible by human beings. According to Irish folklore, fairies are very fond of dancing, and because of that, are in constant need of new shoes. Therefore, shoemaking is a lucrative trade in the fairy world.
‘Meadow Elves’ (1850) by Nils Blommér. (Public Domain) According to Irish folklore, fairies are very fond of dancing, so Leprechaun cobblers would be very wealthy.
One result of the leprechaun’s trade is that they are very wealthy fairies, and it is commonly believed that leprechauns keep the gold that they earn in pots hidden at the end of rainbows. Alternatively, it is believed that leprechauns are the bankers of the fairy world. In this case, the gold they keep may not be their own, but belong to other fairies who have entrusted the leprechauns with the safeguarding of their wealth.
Finally, leprechauns are considered to be a protected species under European Law. This status has been granted by the European Union to the supposed 236 leprechauns that are living today in Carlingford Mountain. It was here that, in 1989, the remains of a leprechaun were allegedly found by a local pub owner by the name of P. J. O’Hare. One day, a scream was heard near a well, and when O’Hare arrived at the scene, he saw bones, a tiny suit and some gold coins near a patch of scorched earth. These items are now displayed in a glass case.
By Wu Mingren
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