Leprechauns

Exploring the Myth of Ireland’s Leprechauns

Credit: anonymous, Leprechaun engraving 1900, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

In Irish folklore, there’s a supernatural being known as a solitary character who lives in remote places such as a cave or in the trunk of a tree. Commonly now known as the leprechaun, they’ve since become synonymous with good luck and treasure.

The leprechaun is a fairy who, according to the History Channel, were irritable and cantankerous little souls, not only known for repairing the footwear of other fairies but also for being tricksters who used deception to keep people away from their treasure. However, their depiction in digital media is often a little more diluted, and their demeanor can often be very different.

Around St Patrick’s Day, there are always hosts of movies available that portray the little fairies as happy and lucky characters with great fortune. Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Disney’s The Luck of the Irish, are titles that depict them in that mold, and in video gaming, a similar theme continues. In arcades, Pot of Gold was a popular game in the 80s, and it played heavily on the Irish themes, with leprechauns a major feature. You can find the same on mobile devices today; there’s a game called Leprechaun’s Luck amongst the Cheeky Bingo jackpot titles, which uses the image of the fairy to denote things are going to go your way. On other portable devices, such as the Nintendo Switch, the stereotype image plays a major role in the game Job of Leprechaun, although the character is the hero, not an angry little man guarding gold. He collects lucky four-leafed clovers and helps save his stricken friend, Eri. While those are modern interpretations, today, we will look at their origins and myths to understand why they’re such significant characters.

The origins of the leprechaun

According to Mythology Source, leprechauns were known as members of the Tuatha Dé Dannan who were from the other world and descended on the Emerald Isle as part of a fleet of 300 ships led by King Nuada, their leader. Upon arrival, the Tuatha Dé Dannan burned their ships to hide their arrival, which also meant they couldn’t leave. They were originally known as Lobarcin, which means ‘small, bodied fellow.’

The first reference known to mention the leprechaun appeared in a medieval tale, Echtra Fergus mac Leti, which tells the tale of how the King of Ulster fell asleep and was dragged into the sea by three characters. He overcame his captors and gained the upper hand, so the leprechauns then granted the King three wishes in exchange for their release, and he couldn’t believe his luck.

However, others have suggested they inhabited Ireland before the arrival of the Celts, which has led some to suggest they’re true Irish natives and are descendants of Irish royalty.

Stories of their fortune

These fairies are the only ones considered to have a trade, which is shoe-making. They constantly had to repair footwear due to dancing to traditional music, which they played on the tin whistle, the fiddle, and the Irish harp. However, their fortune wasn’t from their trade as it was said to come from treasures discovered during wartime, which the leprechauns then restored to their former glories. These artifacts they hid from prospective thieves and vagabonds in their dark, dank homes.

Leprechaun’s appearance

They have been said to have looked like an old man with a red or white beard throughout history. However, the similarities with the standard interpretation end there, as predating the 20th century, writers and historians often documented that they wore red jackets, not the more commonly thought of green. Famous Irish poet and writer W.B. Yeats said that the solitary fairies always wore red; the more common, trooping fairies wore green jackets.

Other legends tell of leprechauns found in different regions wore different clothing styles, although the colors remained the same. Red jacket, white breeches, and shiny shoes.

Story of the Leprechaun

W.B. Yeats told a story of one woman who disappeared, apparently spirited away by the leprechauns only to return several years later. Although she was in good spirits, she was missing her toes due to dancing so much with the little characters! Leprechauns are also said to be particularly fond of the distilled drink, Irish poitin, which was distilled illegally, making it the equivalent of moonshine, and it’s still distilled today. However, several manufacturers now have the licence to do so.

Summary

It’s easy to see why the more common, jovial representations of the fairy are so widely accepted. The leprechaun granted wishes and loved to dance and be merry, but digging a little deeper shows that they weren’t always the most happy-go-lucky fairies. Their actions were more about self-preservation than spreading joy!

However, the myth remains strong in Ireland; whether they are real or not remains unproven, but their tale will be discussed for centuries to come.

Featured image credit: Wiki FANDOM

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