We’ve all seen them in film and television from ‘Leprechaun’ to ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’ and have no doubt worn the St. Patrick’s Day T- Shirt, but what do you really know about Leprechauns? ANN MASSEY O’REGAN gives us a beginner’s guide to Ireland’s most recognisable and smallest inhabitant.
Around for over 1000 years, the leprechaun is descended from the supernatural race known as Tuatha Dé Danann and are a part of the Sidhe or Fairy family. The name Leprechaun has two sources, both from old Irish. The first is ‘Leath Bhrogan’, meaning shoe maker and the second is Luacharma’n meaning small body. Made infamous by the likes of Yeats and Allingham, the once hidden and little known leprechauns are a symbol of Ireland the world over.
No more than three feet high, leprechauns are proportionately stocky in build. They have wizened, aged faces, almost grotesque in appearance, save for their mischievous, fiery eyes. Although stereotyping has them dressed head to toe in green, leprechaun clothing include red and brown outfits and different styles of hat. The two things they are never without are a pipe known as a dudeen full of foul smelling tobacco and a jug under the arm full of beer or poteen.
Leprechauns like to keep themselves to themselves and really don’t like mortals – or each other. Very much loners they are happiest in their own intoxicated company, their only friend being the robin-probably because it won’t ask to share. They are gainfully employed as shoemakers, distillers and as bankers for the otherworld, the latter of which leaves them in a permanent state of anxiety as they struggle to keep the crocks of fairy gold hidden from mortals and other thieving hands. Constantly moving the hoard around, they are followed by rainbows, the end of which is the equivalent of ‘X’ marks the spot for those looking for fairy treasure. Much like mortal bankers, the pressure of work, constantly moving money around to avoid being found and trying to keep up a certain lifestyle takes its toll and leads to alcohol dependency.
There are no female leprechauns and if you ask a leprechaun how they reproduce you are bound to get a swift kick in the shins for your trouble. There are however several types:
This jolly, ruddy faced creature is very partial to a drop of the good stuff and any wine cellar or drinks store is in for a world of ruin if one takes residence. He works hard all day and really lets his hair down at night, riding dogs and sheep for the craic. If you give him a bottle and make him welcome you will be protected. Don’t however, insult or anger the Clurichaun or you will pay. He is recognised by silver buckles on his shoes, blue stockings and gold laces in a cap made of leaves. Also known as ‘His Nibs’.
The least ostentatious of all the leprechauns, the Leinster fellow keeps a low profile and is distinguished from other leprechauns due to his love of honey.
The Tom Cruise of the leprechauns, he wears built up heels on his shoes and a pointy hat to make himself look taller. A talented poet and an accomplished hurler, what the Ulster wee man doesn’t have in height he makes up for in skill.
A born diplomat, the Meath leprechaun has no need to kiss the Blarney Stone. As a result of this he loves the sound of his own voice and will happily use a hundred words where ten will do. Don’t rush him along though, this will antagonise him and he will let you know – at length.
Hardworking, Industrious and very reclusive, keeps his head down and only enjoys a tipple when his work is done.
The most extrovert of the bunch, he is a wild party animal. Munster Leprechaun is known for his legendary drinking habits. When sober he has the most amiable character, but once the drink is inside him, watch out!
Fear Dearg (Red Man)
Recognised by his blemished yellowy skin, Fear Dearg is dressed head to foot in red and is known for mischief, mockery and pranks. His greatest delight is your fear and dread. If you don’t mind the Red Man he will destroy your livelihood, home and health in a heartbeat. More about him soon.
Wishes and Curses
The story of the leprechaun and three wishes can be traced back to the time of Fergus mac Léti, King of Ulster. Legend has it that Fergus fell asleep on the shore and our little friends attempted to drag him into the sea. The cold water woke him and he seized them in his hands. Fearing for their lives they offered the king three wishes in exchange for their freedom. One of Fergus mac Léti’s wishes was for the ability to be able to breathe under water which would lead to his demise.
No good comes from a leprechaun’s wishes! My advice? If you catch one of the little blackguards, let him go. If he doesn’t charm you, he’ll harm you. On the other hand, if you don’t offer a leprechaun hospitality when he seeks it, particularly the red man, you will be cursed to your very soul!
Leprechauns have survived for millennia due to their solitary and resourceful nature and will no doubt be around long after we have departed this mortal coil. By all means wear the t-shirts and don the hats and beards for St. Patricks Day, but don’t let them catch you as they are proud and easily offended – and don’t think for a second you will ever get the better of one or steal its guarded treasure, as a lifetime is a long time for a leprechaun to gleefully torment you in revenge.