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Thursday, June 22, 2017


If you mention the subject of fairies to most people and ask them to name a type of fairy being, many immediately jump to Leprechauns. For a variety of reasons they have become well-known, or at least people believe they know them well and certainly every March there will be the requisite pop-culture article on Leprechaun lore. What is presented there though is often a shallow view of a much deeper subject, so today I thought perhaps we could take a look at what folklore might tell us.

engraving of a Leprechaun circa 1900, public domain
The name Leprechaun appears under various versions and spellings as far back as 1600 in English and the 8th century in Irish. The etymology of the name is uncertain, but the leading theory is that it comes form the Old Irish lúchorpan meaning a 'very small body' (Harper, 2017). This idea is based in the word breaking down to 'lú' meaning something small + corp, a body (a loan word from Latin) + an, a diminutive ending indicating again something small. In the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language luchorpan is defined as 'a dwarf or water-sprite' (eDIL, 2017). There is also a very popular folk etymology that says the word comes from leith-bhrogan meaning one shoe maker, however this probably doesn't go back further than the 19th or 18th century.

The first Irish appearance of Leprechauns - then called 'lúcurpan' - is in the Echtrae Fergusso Mac Léiti. In this story we see the protagonist interacting with the Leprechauns or more specifically they interact with him by kidnapping him while he sleeps. This story along with the related Aided Fergusso mac Leidi establishes Leprechauns as small people and also makes it clear that there are both men and women among them. This story also establishes a connection between the Leprechauns and water, as they both try to drag Fergus into the sea while he is sleeping and then, after he wakes up and captures several of them, agree to give him the power to travel under water without drowning. In the Aided Fergussi mac Leidi we see Fergus meeting the king of the Ulster Leprechauns Lubhdán and the queen Bé Bó after they journey to Emhain Macha and are captured. Although the Leprechauns cause Fergus great trouble trying to force him to free their king - stealing all the milk of the province, burning the mills, and blighting the corn - Fergus and Bé Bó would become lovers and Lubhdan would later give Fergus a poem that advised him on which trees to burn and which not to burn, as well as the associations of some of the trees. 

An aspect of uncertainty with Leprechauns is whether they are their own type of fairy or are rather a general type that can include variations. In the older folklore and mythology it is plain that the Leprechauns are their own group of people, distinct in both appearance and powers from the Daoine Sidhe. In later folklore the word was often used as a generic term indicating all small fairies, and conflated with the other fairies who had by then been diminished. Some writers like W. B. Yeats felt that the Leprechaun, Clurichaun and Fir Darrig were one single type of fairy manifested in different ways, with the Clurichaun being more wild and prone to drunkenness and the Fir Darrig more malicious. Others like Croker view the differences between similar beings like the Leprechaun and Clurichaun as regional variances in naming of the same being. For the purposes of this article we will address the Leprechaun as an individual being, but the reader should understand that it is not a clear cut subject and opinions vary. As Katherine Briggs says, "The last thing to expect from folk tradition is consistency." (Briggs, 1976, p266). 

Descriptions of Leprechauns generally agree that they are small, as their name implies. A poem by William Allingham describes a Leprechaun as "a span and a quarter in height." or in other words 12 inches (Allingham, 1888). The Echtrae Fergus mac Leiti describes them as about three 'fists' high, which one might estimate to be about the same size. The mythology gives us no indication they appear as anything but small people, saying that king Lubhdán's bard had fair hair while the king himself was dark haired, and that queen Bé Bó was beautiful enough that Fergus desired her despite her tiny size. Later folklore however tends to describe Leprechauns as exclusively male, old, grey or white bearded and sometimes wearing glasses (Briggs, 1972). 

Allingham says the Leprechaun was plainly dressed in drab clothes, wearing an apron and with buckles on his shoes; he is sometimes described wearing a red hat as well (Briggs, 1972). In contrast Lady Wilde prefers to describe them as cheerfully dressed in green, however this view cannot be traced back before her as far as I have been able to find. There is a good amount of 19th century folklore that describes Leprechauns wearing red, sometimes exclusively. This may represent legitimate folk belief, as red is a color strongly associated with the Otherworld and red hats or shoes in particular are a common item for fairies to be described wearing. There has been some suggestion however that the descriptions of Leprechauns wearing only red is the result of one folklorist writing in the early 19th century so I would suggest that it is more likely that the red hat and drab outfit are closer to the truth. 

In modern folklore the Leprechaun is a shoe-maker, always seen working on a single shoe. I have heard people say that the fairy has a malicious side and that he will try to trick a person into trying on the shoe, after which they will be unable to remove it and compelled to dance until they die. In more child friendly lore they say that the Leprechaun works to repair fairy shoes damaged during nights of dancing.The Leprechaun is believed to have great hordes of treasure as well as the ability to grant three wishes to anyone who captures him, but he is notoriously difficult to trap as he is very clever. In many stories a person may think they have gotten a Leprechaun only to take their eyes off of him for an instant and find he has disappeared. In some stories he blows the tobacco from his pipe or snuff into their faces in order to make them sneeze and have time to escape, Leprechauns being said to enjoy smoking pipes when they aren't cobbling shoes. In other stories he will divulge the location of his treasure which the person will mark with a handkerchief or rag only to return and find the entire area covered in identical markers. 

Older folklore, via the mythology, showed us a complicated society which included monarchy, poets, bondwomen, and everything else we'd expect in Irish society at that time; basically the Leprechauns of 8th century Ireland had a society that mimicked or mirrored Irish society itself. The King of the Leprechauns was put under geasa [taboos] by his poet which led to the situation in which he was captured by Fergus, for example. Yet modern folklore tells us that Leprechauns are solitary shoe-makers who amass great treasure that can only be gained if they are captured and tricked into turning it over. Both views grant the Leprechaun power, but the newer view has lost the connection to water and sociability, while the older view lacked the hidden treasure and don't-look-away-or-he'll-be-gone idea. 

One can see the disconnect between older folklore and newer in the views about whether a Leprechaun is solitary or social. The mythology paints a picture of social beings who live in a monarchy and were willing to fight to get their king back when he was captured by a human king. Yet renowned modern folklorist Katherine Briggs tells us that leprechauns are solitary fairies and when seen appear alone (Briggs, 1972). Yeats also supported the idea of Leprechauns as solitary fairies, as did many of the writers of his time, although this may be drawing heavily from a single Irish-American source, McNally's 'Irish Wonders', which lays out a great deal of Leprechaun lore that was simply repeated by other folklorists afterwards. The difficulty of course is that this written folklore has taken root and become the widespread modern lore of the last century and a half, which many people have believed is all of the Leprechauns story.  

When we look at the folklore of Leprechauns we are presented with two very different pictures. The oldest mythology shows beings who are social, hierarchical, connected to water, and distinct from the Doiane sidhe (although likely connected in some way). Modern folklore describes almost entirely different beings: solitary, male, earthy, and conflated with the Daoine Sidhe. In some cases we can surmise where a tidbit of folklore came from, for example the idea that capturing a Leprechaun would give a person three wishes is most likely a confusion of Fergus's story where he captured three Leprechauns trying to take him into the sea and agreed to spare their lives in exchange for a wish. In other cases, such as the idea of Leprechauns as fairy shoemakers, we are left guessing. Powerful society of diminutive water spirits or solitary earthly shoe-makers, both versions of the Leprechaun can be found in folklore. Which one represents the true picture of the Leprechaun? I leave that to the reader to judge but one thing is certain, modern or older, Leprechauns should be treated with caution. 

Harper, D., (2017) Online Etymology Dictionary: Leprechaun 
Allingham, W., (1888) The Lepracaun; or Fairy shoemaker
Briggs, K., (1972). A Dictionary of Fairies
eDIL (2017) Luchorpan


  1. This was great! Thank you...I love the water association, and the older notions about them. The idea that treasure can only be gained by great trickery and then easily lost feels to me like metaphor about wealth in general. I winder if this idea is not associated with the impoverishment of Ireland by under-development and popular ideas about how fortunes are come by.

  2. Very strange things happening trying to get this posted. I must, due to time constraints be now briefer than the previous two attempts! But thanks for this, and could you tell me how to pronounce the accents on the vowels of Be Bo?

    1. é - ay
      ó - long o like in more
      Bé Bó would be pronounced roughly Bay Voe