Leprechauns are fascinating creatures often depicted in a light-hearted fashion in cartoons, comics, and other pop-culture media. What many people don’t realise is that these beloved tiny fairies are an important and iconic piece of Irish lore and form part of our nations’ history and culture. In this article we are going to explore the history and meaning behind leprechauns, the myths and legends they carry, and why they are still talked about and depicted in modern day Ireland.
Miniature Mythology – The Origin of Irish Leprechauns
While it’s impossible to know the exact date of the first mention of a leprechaun in Irish folklore, historians and academics alike are satisfied that most of the early tales can be traced back as far as the 8th century.
Interestingly, leprechauns get their name from the Gaelic word ‘luchorpán’ which means ‘small body’*. These luchorpání formed part of the fairy family, were two to three feet tall and were most commonly found in tiny underground caves or hollow tree trunks in an effort to hide from humans! *It’s worth noting that some researchers believe that the word leprechaun as we know it may have actually come from the Irish term ‘leath brogan’ which means shoemaker.
Over the course of centuries, leprechauns have come to be associated as a symbol of Ireland and all things green. In fact you’d do well to walk through the streets of Ireland on St Patrick’s Day without seeing a leprechaun or two depicted in some fashion!
Because of this, we know leprechauns as having the appearance of an old wrinkled man, often smoking a pipe, and donning all-green apparel including the all-important top hat. Rather surprisingly, leprechauns were once thought to have worn red, and did so for many years across numerous tales of folklore. Leprechauns famously made their name as the cobblers of the fairy world, a vocation that would earn them their unmistakable pots of gold!
Gold Rush! – What makes a Leprechaun?
Now we know where leprechauns get their name, what they look like, and how they like to spend their time – it’s now time to find out what makes leprechauns the tricksters of the fairy family and how this reputation came to be.
No Irish leprechaun is complete without his pot of gold, and this very important detail has become a staple of Irish mythology in recent centuries. Legend says that leprechauns gather gold coins that they find buried beneath the earth, and store them in a pot at the end of a rainbow. If you catch a leprechaun, you get to keep his pot of gold – sounds easy right? Except that scientifically it’s basically impossible to locate the natural start/end of a rainbow, making the venture for a leprechaun’s pot of gold little more than a pipe dream!
While leprechauns have become associated with good luck and synonymous with the “luck of the Irish”. It’s worth remembering that these fiendish fairies can be quite the trickers and often deceive humans to punish them for their greed. Those who attempt to capture a leprechaun in search of three wishes or a pot of gold are often led astray!
Leprechaun’s in the Modern World
As mentioned above, leprechauns are still to this day staples of pop culture and modern media. You’ll often find them depicted as loveable and equally deceptive creatures in films, cartoons, and can be popular mascots for things like cereals and other brands.
There’s even a museum dedicated to them here in Ireland – the National Leprechaun Museum in Dublin – a must see on your next visit to the capital city of the Emerald Isle!
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