Happy St. Patrick’s Day! A Brief History of Leprechauns

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When you think of a leprechaun, the first notion that comes to the modern mind might be the tiny green man on the Lucky Charms cereal box. Or perhaps the star of cult horror film Leprechaun in the Hood. But this mythical miniature man, one of the most well-recognized symbols of Ireland, actually has quite a storied history.

A leprechaun is a diminutive fairy, a supernatural creature about whom tales were passed down within the rich history of Irish oral storytelling. Many European countries have fairy lore, but according to A Treasury of Irish Folklore, the Emerald Isle is unique because “the fairy powers in Ireland have been endowed with names and personalities – they are not a nameless commonality.”  Irish folklore described leprechauns as crotchety, solitary, yet mischievous creatures. They were said to be shoemakers who socked away their profits in pots at the end of rainbows, or scattered them around in mountains, forests, or rocks.

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According to Katharine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies, though the leprechaun now represents a generalized Irish fairy, this figure may be an amalgam of several individual fairies who have been conflated over time.  W.B. Yeats, in Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, describes three fairies: the lepracaun, cluricaun, and far darrig, and indeed the latter two seem to have vanished from the popular lexicon.

Leprechauns originally were said to wear red, and it has been theorized that after green began to be associated with everything Irish in the 20th century, the color of his garments transformed. But there may also be another explanation for the sartorial choice: green helps the little men to blend into the grass and the leaves as a sort of camouflage.

This small fairy is often elusive, his presence only marked by a faint hammering sound. William Allingham’s poem “The Lepracaun,” describes man’s particular fascination with this fairy as essentially driven by greed: “Get him in sight, hold him tight, and you’re a made man.” Of course, his pots of gold provide plenty of motivation for men to seek him out, though usually the human who tries to capture a leprechaun is foiled in the end, made to look away by some invented distraction while the leprechaun escapes.  But aside from the treasure he holds, spotting a leprechaun is also considered good luck…so listen just a bit more closely while you’re hoisting a pint of Guinness this St. Patrick’s Day.

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