Leprechauns are like Santa Claus. Both are somewhat hard to believe in when dressed in their cartoonish modern form. Both are a complex mix of past myth, superstition, pagan beliefs and magical arts. And both often provide fancy dress inspiration for hen and stag parties.
Santa is based on the life of a saint from Myra in Turkey, with detail borrowed from northern European Shamanistic rites involving mind-altering narcotics and reindeer. His roots are in Pagan beliefs built around the winter solstice. He was, of course, reinvented in the USA as a less controversial Disney character and became a Christmas brand icon for a soft drinks company.
The Leprechaun’s history and natural history is, if anything, more fascinating and his past even more deeply disguised than that of Santa Claus. Popularly portrayed as a small, bearded elf-like character in 18th century dress of red or green jacket, breeches, buckle shoes and a large hat, the Leprechaun has a hidden crock of gold and if you catch him he will be forced to tell you where it’s hidden. Other tales about Leprechauns identify them as mischievous spirits playing tricks on humans, leading people astray in remote bogs at night, or actually carrying off children to faery world. Other tales portray them as elfin shoe-makers given to repairing or making shoes during the hours of darkness to help human cobblers.
So far, this depiction is true to Finian’s Rainbow, the 1968 film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, before he went ontoApocalypse Now. Tommy Steele starred as the manic Leprechaun, Og, who chases his stolen crock of gold to America, resulting in odd capers, and plenty of singing and dancing from Fred Astaire and Petula Clark. Depending on your tastes it’s either an amusing romp, or a lamentable and tasteless excess of ‘Oirish’ nonsense.
The Leprechaun’s history and natural history is, if anything, more fascinating and his past even more deeply disguised than that of Santa ClausWhichever, it’s far more interesting to wrest Leprechauns back from Hollywood and think of them more as a Rosetta Stone that helps us read and explain the mythology and beliefs of a far earlier Ireland.
A folkloric and tortuous etymology has suggested that the word, Leprechaun, comes from leithbrágan, derived from the Irish words for ‘half’ and ‘shoe’ because leprechauns were often described as fairy cobblers and naturally only worked on one shoe of a pair at a time. Much more likely is that the word comes from luchorpán,from the Old Irish root words denoting ‘small body’.
This identification with the ‘little people’ – amongst which are sleagh math, banshees, sidhe, faeries, poocas and thoushas – takes the Leprechaun’s own roots back to Ireland’s prehistory. One theory identifies them, and other Hibernian fairy tribes, with the displacement of more ancient peoples as Ireland was colonised by newer cultures. The 11th century Book of Invasions claims that Ireland’s early Fir Bolg were driven into remote areas by the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who in turn were conquered and pushed to the fringes of the islands and then into extinction by the Milesians. The exiled people were thought to live at first in hiding as shadowy and mythical figures in areas of wilderness, before becoming spirits haunting the old raths, dolmens and sacred wells, until finally taking up residence in folk tales and superstitions.
Leprechauns were claimed, by some, as a people once part of the Tuatha Dé Danann, though W B Yeats goes further and suggests that they were the actual gods of the Dé Danann and only became ‘little people’ when their power diminished in the face of newer religions. Generally Leprechauns were described as solitary figures, unlike many other spirits and fairies who were believed to travel in hosts and groups. Possibly this individual existence identifies them as healers in the Druid tradition.
Some say that their gold was actual metal, derived from the valuable objects sacrificed to the waters of lakes and rivers or from treasure buried in bogs for concealment at times of unrest. A more intriguing idea, however, is that the ‘gold’ refers to a knowledge of herbs and flowers and especially of those yellow-flowered plants or small yellowish mushrooms brewed into drinks used for healing or to induce shamanic visions.
An illustration from the 1892 book ‘Celtic Fairy Tales’
The connection with cobbling suggests a people or caste with knowledge of one of the early, secretive crafts. Though shoes seem basic and commonplace to us now, the ability to make comfortable, tough, weatherproof footwear must have seemed magical in early times, and the skills kept concealed by elite groups who might, like blacksmiths and bards, have travelled between different client groups as shadowy craftspeople bounded by superstition and earning high reward.
Though the Leprechaun and other Hibernian fairy folk were uniquely Irish, they were affected by traditions and beliefs from other European cultures. Thus in England, Scotland and Wales there is the idea of Puck, a sprite, as written about by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and related to thepookas of Ireland. These elves were known for mild mischief making – breaking items of crockery, souring the milk, letting cattle out of a field, or stealing small items – though possibly their ‘existence’ provided a useful scapegoat for clumsiness or forgetfulness or minor theft.
Indeed, the interest in collecting oral stories about fairy folk by the likes of Lady Gregory, Thomas Crofton-Coker, James Stevens, and Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar), provides many stories where the ‘supernatural’ punch-line to a tale of spirits carrying off children, or men lured into fairy dances held in ancient raths or those ‘touched’ by spirits and dragged into madness might be seen as less magical and more prosaic in these cynical times.
Many of the oral stories collected from the Irish speaking west of Ireland are simple and unadorned accounts of something that happened. And it’s this that lends them their power, and their connection with a more complex belief system of earliest Celtic times, as if the actions of Leprechauns and other fairy folk were a shadow thrown by the light from millennia before. Thus Lady Gregory writes of a man telling her how he was led astray through seven fields (a magical number in all cultures) and how despite turning his coat inside out, usually an effective spell against fairy folk and Leprechaun tricks, the power against him is too strong and he wanders lost until daybreak. He adds no embellishment or explanation, other than emphasising that he hadn’t been drinking. This and many other similar stories report interaction with the other-worldly beings in matter-of-fact tones, as if describing the workings of the weather.
One peculiarity in descriptions of Leprechauns and of other Hibernian fairy folk, when they are detailed, is how their costume is always described in terms of clothing that is of older fashion that the story-teller’s time. Earliest accounts suggest them as robed like Celtic warriors. Then in the Middle Ages spirit people are dressed like people of a century earlier, whilst in the stories collected at the start of the 20th century the Leprechaun, with his breeches, tail coat, buckled shoes and cocked hat, is described as being attired like a dandy of more than a hundred years before.
Unlike Santa Claus – and Santa Claus costumes – a Leprechaun isn’t just for Christmas but can be found in stories, films, old myths, souvenir shops and haunting Ireland’s sacred sites the whole year through. If you believe in them at all, that is. Though, how can you doubt their existence when every international sporting event featuring an Irish team is supported by hundreds of Leprechauns clearly identifiable in their big green hats, their faces framed by bushy ginger sideburns and beards.
By Jasper Winn, 21 December 2012