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Leprechauns


Leprechaun CompanionMANY PEOPLE BELIEVE leprechauns are simply a dwindled folk memory of the tall and graceful Tuatha de Dcinann, an elvish folk said to have ruled Ireland by magic in ancient times, before the arrival of the Sons of Mil. This is not so. Leprechauns are a separate race, almost as ancient and as proud in their own way as the Tuatha, and they take great offence at being mistaken for anything other than what they are.

Others say leprechauns are just a load of old cobblers. Which is true of course because a thousand years is a sprightly age for a leprechaun, and they are famous for their shoemaking; but they have many other talents besides. They are also great tinkers (partly because in the old days their shoes were made of metal) and have proved themselves perfectly equal to much modern technology. Many a tractor in the west of Ireland owes its survival more to the tinkering of leprechauns than the care of the local garage, which it will not have seen for years.

Leprechauns are generally classed among the solitary faeries of Ireland as opposed to the far more common trooping faeries. Most tales speak of encounters with single leprechauns so it is clear they enjoy their own company, but they also have their sociable moments— their family life, clan loyalties and so on — which are what we are more interested in. Leprechauns are less domesticated when it comes to adopting human households than, say, the brownies of Scotland or the kobolds of Germany, or their relations in many other countries, but they have been known to attach themselves to human families and even follow them when they move, which is how there come to be leprechauns in places like North America and Australia.

Most leprechauns live in Ireland thought where they have evolved a quite distinct identity from the Little People of neighbouring countries. In general they are more independent of humans, more interested in gold and more witty than other Little People. Until a century or two ago no-one in Ireland doubted them any more than they doubted the existence of the Pope in Rome. In the first years of the twentieth century a famous scholar named Evans Wentz was impressed by the stir in Mullingar over a leprechaun who had apparently been parading himself before half the children of the parish, and many of the grown people too. Everyone was out looking to catch it. Then the rumour spread that it had been caught by the local police. But when the scholar, continuing on his travels, told this rumour to an old man at Ballywillan where he stopped for the night, the old man laughed and said: ‘Now that couldn’t be at all, for everybody knows the leprechaun is a spirit and can’t be caught by any blessed policeman, though it is likely one might get his gold if they got him cornered so that he had no chance to run away.’

In those days even judges could still confess openly to having met leprechauns without much fear of being laughed off the Bench. There is more scepticism now. In fact, to be perfectly truthful, most people in Ireland today do not seriously believe in leprechauns at all, however partial they may be to the idea of them. And there are those who find the whole subject embarrassing because it reminds them of aspects of the past they would rather forget. Which is fair enough really. Each to his own. Leprechauns themselves are quite happy with this state of affairs. It means there is that much less chance of being rudely interrupted while working away under the hedgerow by some great human eager to squeeze your treasure out of you. And it is easier to play tricks when your victim is unaware of your existence.

Because they are a kind of faery, leprechauns are often invisible. They may pass by as a swirl of dust, so in the old days men would raise their hats and women curtsey if a pillar of dust blew by, just in case. If you throw your left shoe at the cloud and it is really a leprechaun, he has to drop whatever he is holding, including any bags of gold; but if he is not holding anything, you may just gain his ill-will from it.

In the old days people would also leave out a dish of milk or fresh water at night for leprechauns, avoid cutting down hawthorn or whitethorn bushes, leave the dregs in their glasses when going to bed, and many other little courtesies to keep in with them. That so few people now take the trouble is the cause of endless bad luck which might otherwise be happily avoided.

Leprechauns have been known to ‘adopt’ families and move in with them, though this is rarer than with the Little People of other countries. Often the first sign that a leprechaun has moved in is that things start to go missing, or turn up in unexpected places. Sometimes even a table or a chair might be thrown across the room, and the whiskey or milk will be found to have gone down overnight, or to have been topped up with water. If all this happens, the family will know they must start leaving out little presents of food and drink and anything else that might take the little fellow’s fancy. Then, with luck, instead of doing mischief the leprechaun will go round the house and barns at night finishing off jobs that the big people have had no time to do.

All this can happen without the family clapping eyes on their guest. But those who have seen or met a leprechaun most often describe him (it nearly always is a ‘him’) as being two to three feet tall, with a wizened face, bright eyes and a red nose. His dress varies but tends to be old-fashioned, in mainly greens and browns with touches of bright red, and often shabby. Some people have met leprechauns only a few inches tall while others seemed barely shorter than humans, but usually their size falls somewhere in between. This is because their form is more flexible than ours. They can even adopt the shape of animals, it is said, which you can tell by the strange behaviour of the creature, especially if it talks to you.

One sure way of seeing leprechauns is to carry a sprig of four-leaf clover or shamrock somewhere about your person, or a stone with a natural hole bored through it, or a piece of wood with a knot that has been knocked out. Some say a sprig of the faery cap flower (also known as lusmore or foxglove) conveys the same power, but this is disputed. Often also the robin redbreast will lead you to a leprechaun because they are great friends. In fact a robin is the most common bird form the leprechaun will adopt, for which reason it is especially bad luck to kill or trap a robin, even accidentally.

HERE IS A SENTIMENTAL notion abroad of leprechauns being bright, sunny little folk only too eager to surrender their pots of gold to passing strangers, but this is far from the truth. It has been known to happen, but it is rare. Leprechauns are great misers, and like all misers they do not just collect gold for the sake of giving it away to passing strangers, not without good cause anyway. As to being cheerful, well some leprechauns are and some aren’t, purely as a matter of temperament. But however sunny their disposition, it may well not be apparent to one of us. Since most humans have only ever really been interested in leprechauns for the sake of their gold, we should not be too surprised if they are wary of us and perhaps harbouring a few grievances.

So the thing to remember about leprechauns should you happen to meet one is that they can be as nice as pie, but they may also seem cantankerous, vindictive, spiteful old curmudgeons, or anything in between. A bit like humans really. But on the whole they tend more towards mischief. They love pranks, especially if there is a lesson in it for the victim. So when meeting a leprechaun it is best to be courteous and friendly. And think twice before accepting any gift that is freely offered.


 


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