Leprechauns

This is yet another of those questions I don’t quite remember the context for. I do recall that – around St. Patrick’s Day last year – his preschool did a thing where the teachers messed up the classroom while the kids were out on the playground, and then told all of the children that a leprechaun messed the room up. The kids then made “leprechaun traps”, which they set out overnight. The next day there were no leprechauns in the traps, but each one had a “gold coin” (really a chocolate coin” in it.

My son was enamored, and I suspect that set off the following questions.

“How small is a leprechaun?” he asked.

“They’re small,” I said, holding my hand a foot or so off the floor. “ABout so big.”

“Are mice their friends?”

That left me nonplussed. I’ve read a whole lot of myths and fairy tales in my time, but nothing about leprechauns that I remember. Certainly nothing about leprechauns that included mice.

What is a Leprechaun?

leprechaun

The exact definition of a leprechaun is, well, it’s not precisely exact. It’s not like we can subject them to DNA analysis to determine where they fit in the phylogenetic tree, after all. However, in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, W. B. Yeats classifies them among the “solitary fairies” – one of a group of fairies that live a solitary lifestyle and are distinct from the gregarious “trooping faeries”. He says:

“The name Lepracaun,” Mr. Douglas Hyde writes to me, “is from the Irish leith brog–i.e., the One-shoemaker, since he is generally seen working at a single shoe. It is spelt in Irish leith bhrogan, or leith phrogan, and is in some places pronounced Luchryman, as O’Kearney writes it in that very rare book, the Feis Tigh Chonain.”

The Lepracaun, Cluricaun, and Far Darrig. Are these one spirit in different moods and shapes? Hardly two Irish writers are agreed. In many things these three fairies, if three, resemble each other. They are withered, old, and solitary, in every way unlike the sociable spirits of the first sections. They dress with all unfairy homeliness, and are, indeed, most sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms. They are the great practical jokers among the good people.

The Lepracaun makes shoes continually, and has grown very rich. Many treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time, has he now for his own. In the early part of this century, according to Croker, in a newspaper office in Tipperary, they used to show a little shoe forgotten by a Lepracaun.

The Cluricaun, (Clobhair-ceann, in O’Kearney) makes himself drunk in gentlemen’s cellars. Some suppose he is merely the Lepracaun on a spree. He is almost unknown in Connaught and the north.

The Far Darrig (fear dearg), which means the Red Man, for he wears a red cap and coat, busies himself with practical joking, especially with gruesome joking. This he does, and nothing else.

Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, writing in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland repeats Yeats’ etymology, stating that “Leprehaun, or Leith Brogan. means the “Artisan of the Brogue.””. This meaning is generally regarded as “folk etymology“, in which unknown words are replaced by a more familiar word. Modern linguists trace the meaning of leprechaun from the Irish lupracan, which comes from the Old Irish luchorpan, meaning “a very small body”. That word comes from the Proto-Indo-European *legwh- (“having little weight”) plus corpan (a diminutive of corp “body”).

In other words, leprechauns are solitary shoemakers with an inordinate amount of wealth, who sometimes go on benders and sometimes play gruesome practical jokes.  The “red cap” thing is particularly disturbing, because it brings the Scottish Redcap to mind.  And nobody needs an iron-shod lunatic dying their hat in human blood as a cobbler.

Wait, shoes?

Yeah, shoes. Despite the word “leprechaun” meaning something along the lines of “small body”, leprechauns are kind of like the elves in the Irish version of The Shoemaker and the Elves. Except that they live by themselves, wear clothes, and don’t make shoes for humans. But they were worth looking out for anyway. As Lady Wilde put it, “the Leprehauns knew all the secret places where gold lay hid”. If you were clever and quick enough to catch one, you could get them to bargain their gold for their freedom.

You had to be careful with trying to get gold out of a Leprechaun, though – they don’t appear to have minded you trying to get their gold, but they loathed bad manners. Like all fairies, to quote Lady Wilde again, “the Leprehauns can be bitterly malicious if they are offended, and one should he very cautious in dealing with them, and always treat them with great civility, or they will take revenge and never reveal the secret of the hidden gold.”

What about the rainbows?

I found one source for a story involving leprechauns and rainbows. It was on the web site of a local news station in Washington state, though, so I can’t vouch for how authentic it is. It’s the story of a poor husband and wife, and the leprechaun who promises to grant them a single wish. The couple argues about what they should wish for. The leprechaun gets disgusted with their behavior and says “For this, I will not grant any wish of yours. But, since you are in need, I will give you a hint. I have hidden a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. All you have to do is find it.”

The Oxford Dictionaries says that “at the end of the rainbow” is used to refer to “something much sought after but impossible to attain”, so that would make sense in the context of a leprechaun hiding wealth (and in the context of the story).

So how small are they? And are mice their friends?

This is tricky at best. Lady Wilde describes them as “little” and able “to sit under the hedge” and “under a dock leaf”. I couldn’t find any specifics on the gap beneath a British hedge, but I did learn that “dock” is Rumex obtusfiolius, a plant that grows between 20 and 51 inches (50 and 130 cm). So that gives us a leprechaun height between 10 inches and two feet.

Sadly, I can’t find anything about whether or not they are friends with mice.

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