Horseshoes, rainbows, and shamrocks. We all know the stories. We’ve experienced it in our marshmallow cereal on early mornings and in a horror franchise late at night. Some folks set traps with their children every March 16th while others chase rainbows well into their most elderly years in hopes to reach a pot of gold at the end. There are many funny things about the magical world of the legendary leprechaun that enchant us, regardless of our age but how much do we really know about them when comparing pop culture to the original folklore?
The three most well-known pop culture references featuring leprechauns are Lucky Charms cereal, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team, and the “Leprechaun” horror film series. “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” by Walt Disney Pictures (1959) starring Sean Connery is also an excellent reference for a modern depiction but it may not be as well known. What is it that all four of these examples share in common? A green hat which is often a derby or bowler design, a green suit, and a pair of good old gold buckle shoes. More often than not, when we think of the word “leprechaun” we envision a tiny redhead with a beard, dressed to the nines in green, shining shoes or hanging out near rainbows with a pot of gold, with a shamrock or four-leaf clover on his person. This is what we’ve grown up with and see in every store around Saint Patrick’s Day but it’s not entirely accurate.
What we already know for sure is that leprechauns are mischievous creatures of Irish fairytale folklore. They enjoy practical jokes and pranks and are neither good nor evil. They are a type of fairy spirit, possibly a pigmy or sprite, who often carry a purse containing gold coins or at least a shilling at all times. They are solitary creatures who make shoes or shine them and average about 3ft in height.
However, the Old Irish luchorpan or lupracan originally wore red instead of green. They didn’t wear bowler or derby caps but cocked hats. Leprechauns are the bankers of the fairy realm and may be generous if you are kind to them. The earliest mention of them in history is from the 8th century while other sources say the 13th, rarely appearing in early Irish mythology. The term translates to “small body” as lu- means small and corp- means body combined into luchorpan. More recently though there are some suggestions that the etymology comes from the Roman festival of Lupercalia.
“Darby O’Gill and the Little People” and the “Leprechaun” series starring Warwick Davis in the titular role are not too far off aside from the wardrobe. “Darby O’Gill” features the capture of a leprechaun and the granting of three wishes in exchange for being released. In “The Saga of Fergus mac Leti” a Gaelic legend, King Fergus seizes several luchorpain sprites and is granted three wishes, this is believed to be the earliest story featuring leprechauns. As for the horror series with Warwick Davis, the leprechaun is more of a solitary creature as they are often believed to be and overly protective of his gold.
Not extra-terrestrials, rather terrestrial creatures, leprechauns are a different kind of little green men that have entertained us for generations and many more to come. You can party like a leprechaun for Saint Patrick’s Day or Leprechaun Day which takes place on May 13th annually. Just remember, they are neither friend nor foe and that good fortune comes around. If you deal good luck toward a tiny, bearded humanoid you may just be rewarded with a little bit of gold rather than a big nasty prank.