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
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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