Leprechauns: At the End of the Rainbow Lies Richness for Irish Folklore
Those little men all dressed in green, obsessed with rainbows and treasure, trickery, and of course shoe-making. These are all common perceptions today regarding the famous characters from Irish folklore: Leprechauns. The characteristics of these mythical creatures has transformed over the years and much of what made the little people special in the original tales has been forgotten.
Etymology for the Word Leprechaun
Many scholars believe that the origin of the word leprechaun is the old Irish Lú Chorpain meaning small body. Another definition has linked the modern name to luchorpán ( a word from the 8th century AD ) which is defined as sprite or pygmy. Finally, the word leprechaun has been connected to leath bhrógan (shoe maker). This definition is also a possibility as many stories about leprechauns have shown their profession to be the cobblers of the fairy world.
The word lubrican, another word associated with leprechaun, first was written in English in 1604 in the play The Honest Whore by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. The line from the play states: "as for your Irish lubrican, that spirit whom by preposterous charms thy lust hath rais'd in a wrong circle…"
The Ancient Leprechauns
Leprechauns are thought to have been one of the many types of inhabitants of the fairy forts or fairy rings in ancient Ireland. It has been suggested that the merry tricksters of today may even be a modern incarnation of the Euro-Celtic god Lugh (pronounced “Luck”). Lugh was said to be the sun god, patron of arts and crafts and leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann ("peoples of the goddess Danu").
Altar depicting a tricephalic god identified as Lugus (Lugh), discovered in Reims. ( Wikipedia)
Medieval Irish manuscripts (12th -15th Centuries) believed to be associated with leprechauns suggest that leprechauns were originally beings that lived underwater and, contrary to today’s depiction, they weren’t all male. They were depicted as warriors with voracious appetites and the female leprechauns were especially engrossed with luring away human men for secret adventures. These characteristics seemed to continue at least until the aforementioned writing in 1604.
Early leprechauns were described as sly old men that wore red suits and were often found working on a solitary shoe. The word solitary was also applied to the social preferences of leprechauns who seemed to prefer time alone to interacting with other faerie creatures, or even other leprechauns. There friendless nature perhaps was also partly due to others avoiding them – early leprechauns were also thought to be particularly mischievous house-haunting drunkards. These characteristics were later passed on to the leprechaun “cousins” the clobhair-ceann or clurichaun, an Irish fairy that is always drunk and rude. The clurichaun got the blame for noisy nights and messy homes (especially wine cellars).
An illustration of a clurichaun, cousin of the leprechauns. (1862) T.C. Croker ( Wikimedia Commons )
Changes in Leprechaun Traits: Now a Wealthy Shoemaker
By 1825, the leprechaun population was limited to only males. T. Crofton Croker's Fairy Traditions and Legends of the South of Ireland provided more insight on traits of these mythical creatures: “They are often described as bearded old men dressed in green and wearing buckled shoes. Sometimes they wear a pointed cap or hat and may smoke a pipe.”
The Leprechauns of the time were thought to be particularly stylish. Both Samuel Lover, writing in 1831, and William Butler Yeats (in 1888) made mention of the importance leprechauns placed in their appearance.
Lover wrote that a leprechaun was:
“…quite a beau in his dress, notwithstanding, for he wears a red square-cut coat, richly laced with gold, waistcoat and inexpressible of the same, cocked hat, shoes and buckles.”
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Following that, Yeats later added:
“He is something of a dandy, and dresses in a red coat with seven rows of buttons, seven buttons on each row, and wears a cocked-hat, upon whose pointed end he is wont in the north-eastern counties, according to McAnally, to spin like a top when the fit seizes him.”
The 18th Century poem by William Allingham entitled The Lepracaun; Or, Fairy Shoemaker further promoted the idea that in the fairy realm occupations are chosen by group, and leprechauns were in charge of keeping the rest of the community’s feet happy. He also provided a hint to people searching for leprechauns (more on why soon) – the presence of leprechauns can be noted by their tapping sounds as they work: