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What the Feck Is a Leprechaun, Anyway?

Whatever the feck it is, it’s not 100 percent Irish

Its St. Patrick’s Day, which means a tide of green-clad frat bros have probably already kicked down your front door and puked in your shoes. This survival guide is designed to get you through the worst day of the year in as few pieces as possible.

This St. Patrick’s Day, to inject your quest for booze with a shot of cultural legitimacy, why not dress up as Ireland’s most widely imitated and instantly recognizable supernatural creature? Dig out a creepy black cape, pop in a pair of deadly fangs and mwah-ha-ha, you’re a vampire! Because Count Dracula — invented by Dubliner Bram Stoker, and very possibly based on the ancient legend of Abhartach, a bloodthirsty undead dwarf king who was said to haunt the hillsides of County Derry — is, in fact, Ireland’s most widely imitated and instantly recognizable supernatural creature.

Coming a close second, of course, is Bono (and for that, the costume’s basically the same — just throw on a pair of purple sunglasses). In terms of global cultural impact, the humble leprechaun lags behind in third place. And yet, all over the world, it’s leprechauns that have been entrusted with the spirit of Irishness, magically bestowing Celtic credentials on anyone who wears their gaudy uniform, or uses their image to market their product, instantly conjuring more ancestral authority than an actual Irish passport.

Their popularity as a national emblem of Eire is an odd thing to explain. Firstly, if you were going to pick a mascot to sum up an entire people and their history, a twinkly old treasure-hoarding trickster of ambiguous moral standing would be a pretty odd choice — it’s like if the British were to start putting Piers Morgan on their banknotes. And secondly, the leprechauns most of us are familiar with bear a surprisingly hollow resemblance to the creatures as they were originally imagined. In the oldest tales that feature them, there were no pots of gold and no rainbows; they usually wore red, not green, and they weren’t all cobblers. In the earliest written sources the leprechauns — much like St. Patrick himself — didn’t even come from Ireland. Over time their dinky identities have accumulated a long list of discrepancies. Leprechauns? Discreprechauns, more like.

But before we get into how this weirdly overlooked mismatch came to be, it’s worth establishing exactly what sort of beings these things are in the first place, since it’s not altogether obvious. Are they pixies? Goblins? Shrunken Freddy Kruegers? Children with old-person faces? Like so much in the arena of folklore, definitive answers are ultimately lost in the mist, obscured by centuries of retelling and reinterpretation. But a prominent view among folklorists is that they’re both a kind of fairy, and kind of their own thing. “The leprechaun is unique among Irish fairies,” wrote John J. Winberry in the journal Folklore in 1976, “and should not be confused with the Aes Sidhe, the ‘Good People,’ who populate the fairy mounds, … steal children, beguile humans and perform other malicious pranks. The leprechaun is prone to mischief,” said Winberry, but he isn’t feared, avoided and appeased, like his fairy kinfolk are.

Fairies in the Irish imagination are a world away from “the English Victorian idea of fairies as small-winged creatures,” warns Mark O’Géaráin, experience manager at the National Leprechaun Museum in Dublin, who has been “reading Irish folklore passionately for the last 30 years.” In accounts rooted in mythology, the many — so, so many — categories of fairy peoples (collectively known as Sidhe, pronounced “Shee,” in both Scotland and Ireland) are often cast as the descendants of a race of gods who lived in Ireland before the humans arrived and took over. “They started off by wandering the land like we do,” explains O’Géaráin, “but there was a great battle in Ireland which sees them losing to the invaders, and they’re driven into what they call the Otherworld, which is down into the earth. And from living in the ground over time they become weak, they become smaller.”

Small Beginnings

Where the leprechauns fit in this particular origin story (and it’s far from being the only one) is as incomers who settle in Ireland at some point much later on, something like the Sidhe’s oddball cousins from overseas. Their earliest known written appearance is in The Saga of Fergus mac Léti, first recorded by monks in the 8th century, in which Fergus, a warrior king of Ulster, narrowly escapes being dragged into the sea by miniature water sprites called “Lú Chorpáin” (meaning “small bodies”), who end up appeasing the king by granting him three wishes. In a later version of the tale written in the 11th century — a copy of which is on display at the National Leprechaun Museum — we see these proto-leprechauns fleshed out a little more.

“They all trooped out, lords and ladies, to view the wee man”

Their homeland is an island somewhere between Ireland and Scotland called Faylinn — “It’s a mythical island; you can’t visit it,” says O’Géaráin — and it was ruled over by a tiny king, Lubdan (or Iubdan), and his lepre-queen, Bebo. Because, yes, there were lady leprechauns. Their hair was fair and went down to their ankles, say the medieval scribes. “Even when we get Irish visitors in here, they’re so surprised by this,” remarks O’Géaráin. And they weren’t just shoemakers: “Initially they were poets, they were warriors, they were cooks — they had every job you’d have to have in a community.” They reared tiny farm animals, and they liked to go hunting. As described by Winberry: “The lupracan society was a Lilliputian medieval Irish kingdom and was isolated by a wide sea.”

All this changes in the tale when Lubdan and Bebo have to visit the land of the giants (i.e., Ireland), where Fergus catches them and takes them prisoner. In at least one version he keeps Bebo as his mistress for a year and a day — which, bearing in mind this is a woman he met while fishing her tiny form out of a bowl of porridge, has basic logistical implications that should never, ever be fully thought through. In any case, “When the leprechauns settled into Ireland,” says O’Géaráin, it wasn’t even all of them. “It looks like it’s just an army that came across to retrieve their king who’d been captured.” Which might account for the lack of female versions in later stories.

They brought with them their skills in crafting leather goods and found their future economic niche. Ireland’s indigenous fairies “were always associated with music and dance,” says O’Géaráin, “and the idea is that they would wear through their shoes. Suddenly you have these people who have arrived in Ireland and who naturally are great shoemakers — they’ve got a new craft that’s been introduced to Ireland and a workforce that can keep up to demand.”

So that could explain the shoemaking. And according to one storytelling strand, upon settling they also fell under the magical jurisdiction of their fellow fairy-folk, who were immortal, had everlasting food and could walk among humans without being seen. So now, “the leprechaun has this thing of, while they’re staying here in Ireland, they age much slower. So the image of an old-man leprechaun today with the beard and the walking stick — that’s one take on where that idea comes from.”

Who Put the Corn in Leprechaun?

And what about all the rest of it — the rainbows, the gold-laden kitchenware, the green hats? “They’re not unfounded,” says O’Géaráin; they’re all elements that can be found in the folktales that have been gathered from different regions of Ireland at different times over the centuries.

The high point for hunting down and categorizing leprechaun lore came in the late 19th century, when Irish authors and poets, among them W.B. Yeats, were mining the folk tradition to forge a national literary identity in English. This, according to Winberry, was when the leprechaun really began to emerge as a candidate for national totem: “The basic nature of the 19th-century leprechaun was preserved, but he was even more amiable. Stories of the Irish countryside and miscellaneous tales frequently included this wee elf, and he became the most popular of the Irish fairies.”

But he wasn’t ready for his cereal-box close-up just yet. In her 1913 book Ulster Folklore, Elizabeth Andrews gives an account of her travels all over the island collecting stories, in which she describes meeting “a boatman at Killarney,” in County Kerry, who “spoke of the Leprechauns as little men about three feet in height, wearing red caps. He thought the fairies might be taller, and spoke of their living in forts.”

It was only later on in the 20th century that somehow all these traits and traditions were fused into a single, uncomplicated caricature, given a greened-up makeover, and exported around the world as the impish stereotype we have today. And for that, “Walt Disney has a lot to answer for,” says O’Géaráin. “More than most, when it comes to it.”

In the late 1940s, America was having a bit of a leprechaun moment. The musical Finian’s Rainbow, about a man who emigrates to the U.S. after stealing a leprechaun’s crock of gold, began a hit run on Broadway in 1947, and it was around the same time that Walt Disney himself, accompanied by a director, screenwriter and production exec, showed up in Ireland. They were there to research a movie that would eventually become 1959’s lepre-cornball classic Darby O’Gill and the Little People — a film noted as much for Sean Connery’s brutalized Irish accent as for its portrayal of Ireland as a whimsical fairy-infested theme park.

Amazingly, though, according to an account by National University of Ireland Galway film academic Tony Tracy, the project started out with the intention to hold true to Irish traditions. Once in Ireland, Disney and his collaborators spent two weeks in the company of an eminent scholar from the Irish Folklore Commission, to whom one of the Disney executives wrote in a letter of 1947: “I feel that the Irish leprechaun and fairy theme is a very delicate subject and unless it is handled well, might tend to ridicule the tradition that your Folklore Commission has been trying so hard to preserve.”

In the end, though, the movie succumbed to Disney’s saccharine worldview, as well as an eccentric personal fixation he seemed to have with Little People. In an outpouring of promotional material he concocted to accompany the movie’s release — including a bizarre fake TV documentary that actually showed him traveling to Kerry to meet a top leprechaun expert, who turns out to be the character Darby O’Gill from the film — Walt insisted, “Once we decided on using real Leprechauns in the picture I set out for Ireland to hire some.”

All the careful research conducted by his creative team at the movie’s inception didn’t go entirely to waste, though. “In Darby O’Gill,” notes O’Géaráin, “the leprechaun king makes reference to a throne he is sitting on and calls it the Throne of King Fergus — giving a nod to the original story.”

No Country for Tiny Old Men

One more unexpected quirk about the leprechaun’s association with Ireland is that it’s completely arbitrary — the little rascal could have hung its hat on any number of other countries’ national holidays too. In its origins, it’s a Celtic creature, rather than being specifically Irish, which means it has close relatives in folklore traditions scattered across the British Isles and much of Western Europe. Even beyond the Celtic world there are stories about imps and elves that are strikingly similar.

“There are all these different cultural takes on it,” says O’Géaráin. “In Brazil they have a one-legged boy who smokes a pipe with holes in his hands; he wears a pointy red hat, and he’s very similar to the leprechaun.” He also says he has an aunt who lives in the U.K. whose “garden is filled with garden gnomes. That’s one of these instantly recognizable characters as well. But I know that a gnome is a thing called a kabouter — it comes from Holland, and they’re a really old idea. Even down to the pointy red hat, which is what the leprechaun traditionally wore, it’s basically the same thing.”

Saci

So why don’t gnomes say Netherlands in the same way leprechauns scream Ireland? Outside of a stellar career as backyard ornaments, says O’Géaráin, “They haven’t been as successful or as widespread because I just think the Irish talk more than the Dutch.” It’s also, he says, down to the long history of the Irish as a people who have moved around the world. “Being forced to leave our homeland for varying reasons has meant that the poor people who left with nothing, all they had with them was their stories, so that’s what they took and they shared.”

As for how happy their descendants and the people of Ireland are today about being tethered to the leprechaun in its modern guise, feelings tend to be mixed. Some clearly embrace the sprite — often for his commercial potential — a prize example being Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, who famously used to issue annual reports dressed as one, and once exclaimed: “All flights are fueled with leprechaun wee and my bullshit!” At the other extreme, its existence is sometimes lamented as a vehicle for trading in crass stereotypes or anti-Irish xenophobia, as recently illustrated in rapper Azealia Banks’s abject Instagram outburst in January.

As the leprechaun rose to take its place as go-to cultural ambassador, “It played down and slightly dehumanized the Irish to be associated with this creature of smaller stature,” reflects O’Géaráin. But he also points out that around a fifth of visitors to the National Leprechaun Museum are Irish, which, he says, attests to a strong current of affection for the national emblem too. “We want to take that image that they have in their heads, and not to tell them that they’re wrong, because that’s what the character has evolved into — but we want to be able to talk about the origins of it.”

All things considered, he sees the leprechaun’s global impact as having been a positive one. “It plays into a thing that Ireland has, which is one of our biggest selling points, which is that it’s quite a playful place. There’s a thing about silliness that can be associated with Ireland. People are willing to engage.” And as long as that’s not the only thing the world chooses to associate with his culture, he thinks that’s okay. “We have the ability to take a little bit of a hit, especially when we’ve got people like Joyce and Yeats. We’ve got weight behind us. We can afford to take the piss out of ourselves a little.”