Leprechaun: Ireland’s Most Distinguished Fairy

The following is an excerpt from an article of the same title, first published on the website: Tales and Whispers.

The Leprechaun, today, is well known for its stereotypical image, commonly associated lightheartedly to Ireland, but this wasn’t always the case. Scholars of Literature, Nobel Prize winners and folklorists have written about this solitary faery, and have done so in a serious manner. In fact, The Leprechaun, according to folklorist Thomas C. Croker, during the 1800’s was even explained in the Irish court of Justice! One could assume, this could be due to the notion that fairies, including the Leprechaun, happened to exist at one time but continued to shrink into non-existence, and with them, many of their stories. Fairies, in general, are often said to have descended from the Tuatha de Danann. They were Gods that shrunk in size due to the loss of worship with the coming of Christianity. Some have direct linkages and some are impossible to trace back to their former selves. The Leprechaun is an interesting case. There’s no real way to pinpoint, a definitive starting point for this creature, as he has evolved so much since its origins. Stories about the Irish Leprechaun are dependent on when and where the stories originated from. His dress, moods and even his name can change as you search across the island of Ireland. One thing that is for certain, is that this little island must have been a greatly more interesting place with their presence, than without!

The Shoemaker

“There was another class of beings, unlike fairies, of diminutive stature, who also were believed to be much interestedin human affairs ; of these the most popular was the Luchryman (recte, Leith-bhrogan, i.e., the artisan of the shoe or brogue), because he was always found, when discovered by the human eye, busily engaged in mending or making a shoe. This tiny sprite always proved very cunning, when surprised by the human eye resting upon him, and used many wily inventions to induce the beholder to look one way or the other, when he became instantly invisible, and was never seen after. If he did not thus succeed in baffling the mortal, the latter had him completely in his power, and had nothing more to do than to capture the wealthy sprite ; but he could be bound by no manacles except a plough-chain, or a clue of woollen thread manufactured by the industrious housewife. The Luchryman possessed a twofold source of wealth, one, a treasure hidden in the earth, which he bestowed on the husbandman ; and the other, sparan na sgillinge, an inexhaustible purse, which always contained a piece of money ; this purse he gave to the merchant or dealer only. The Luchryman was the type of industry : if the beholder, or he who made industry his principal object, turned his eye to the right or left from the motive of his pursuit, then, like the Luchryman, he was certain to be disappointed, and lose his golden prize. The nature too of the bonds, by which alone the sprite could be possibly bound, is emblematical of industry. So firm was the belief in the existence of the Luchryman, that if a farmer was known to better his condition by industry and economy, or a trader to grow wealthy by honest dealing, they were said to have captured a Luchryman, and robbed him of his treasure or inexhaustible purse.”

- N. O’Kearney, 1854

Nowadays people know the Leprechaun as a jolly little sprite, wearing a green jacket, matching top hat, black leather boots and possibly, a dudeen (pipe) hanging from his mouth; or worse again, peering from a cereal box, with the cheesiest grin one commercially driven cartoonist could muster. Although this little figure has similarities to our Leprechaun, this version is not only bastardized, but it is laughable.  Traditionally, he is more often found to be wearing a red waist coat and matching paddy hat. He is commonly known, throughout Ireland, as being the only working fairy; a cobbler that makes the finest footwear and clothing that money can buy. In fact, Lady Wilde wrote in 1888:

“The Leprehauns are merry, industrious, tricksy little sprites, who do all the shoemaker's work and the tailor's and the cobbler's for the fairy gentry, and are often seen at sunset under the hedge singing and stitching. They know all the secrets of hidden treasure, and if they take a fancy to a person will guide him to the spot in the fairy rath where the pot of gold lies buried.”

- The Leprechaun, 1888

It is sometimes rumored that the reason he has a pot of gold is due to his trade. A very popular tradesman, the leprechaun made the clothing for all of the fairies who in turn, paid him in gold. Some say, his work ethic was driven solely by greed and, unlike what is commonly thought, he was not always found to be jolly. The introduction of a rainbow, to this cunning little fellow’s tale, is a modern addition and is never mentioned in authentic tales. One thing is clear; stories of our Irish Leprechaun can be dependent on different factors. Interestingly, he was not always known for his hard graft or his hidden fortune and most importantly, he was not even always known by the same name.
For example, in the county of Kildare he was known as "the Lurikeen." A Treasury of Irish Folklore, by Padraic Collum describes the Kildare Lurikeen exactly the same as Lady Widle’s Leprehaun, and exhibits all the common traits that we know.

There is a story depicting a leprechaun, who was working under a hedge row when a girl caught him in her hands and refused to release him until he produced the gold. The story ends, as many others do, with the seemingly dimwitted Leprechaun convincing his captor to avert their eyes and when doing so, he disappears into thin air. It is important to note that although the Leprechaun was known for his greed, the greed, in this case, happens to sit on the side of the abductors. The Fairy in these stories is always found working, not counting his riches. His only greed-like trait is that he does not want to part with his hard earned money…. and why would he?

The Drunk and the Prankster

N. O'Kearney states that:

“The Clobhar-ceann was another being of the same class: he was a jolly, red-faced, drunken little fellow, and was ever found in the cellars of the debauchee, Bacchus-like, astride of the wine butt with brimful tankard in hand, drinking and singing away merrily. Any wine-cellar known to be haunted by this sprite, was doomed to bring its owner to speedy ruin.”

Kearney’s Clobhar-ceann (or its more well-known translation, "The Clurichaun") suggests that he wore clover upon hishat or head. He was found more so in the province of Munster, but the name was not the only differing attribute. The Clurichaun was a creature that found his way to your cellar and would drink your reserves. Was he a leprechaun that has lost his way and found too much of a liking for the good stuff? WB Yeats writes, “Even if you move house, the Clurichaun will find his way with you.”

On the other hand, Thomas Crofton Croker’s version of Cluricaune, in the story ‘The Little Shoe’, was in fact a cobbler and true to the hard working Leprechaun ways. It would seem that, their names were the only difference between the Clurichaun and the Leprechaun.

The Far Darrig, on the other hand, is a curious character. It is not alcohol that he desires, but to play some sinister pranks. He was often found in the west and north, mountainous parts, of the country. These are the areas where the stills would be brewing on the hill sides. When you mix some mountainous woodland and more than a few drops of the Pure (also known as the Poitín) there isn't much doubt that you’ll encounter a few Far Darrigs! In fact, Letitia Mac Clintock’s story ‘

The Far Darrig of Donegal’ is truly sinister indeed; A prankster that leads a travelling man on a series of events that almost results in his death. But is he a Leprechaun, using magic and trickery, or is he different altogether? Maybe the Far Darrig is a Clurichaun, that cannot find a wine cellar. Perhaps the differences depend on age.

“Fir Darrig, correctly written Fear Dearg, means the red man, and is a member of the fairy community ofIreland, who bears a strong resemblance to the Shakespearian Puck, or Robin Goodfellow. Like that merry goblin, his delight is in mischief and mockery; and this Irish spirit is doubtless the same as the Scottish Red Cap. The red dress and strange flexibility of voice possessed by the Fir Darrig form his peculiar characteristics; the latter, according to Irish tale-tellers, is like the sound of the waves ; and again it is compared to the music of angels ; the warbling of birds, &c, ; and the usual address to this fairy is, do not mock us. His entire dress, when he is seen, is invariably described as crimson ; whereas, Irish fairies generally appear in a black hat, a green suit, white stockings, and red shoes.”

- Thomas Crofton Croker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland 1834

Thomas Crofton Croker tells of stories of both the Clurichaun and Far Darrig. His Far Darrig is also a prankster in ‘The Lucky Guest’ but does not show himself to the people he is haunting. In different situations, this Far Darrig could be labeled as the Clurichaun, and would still be believable. It is fair to say that Thomas Crofton Croker saw the Far Darrig as its own spirit entirely. Alternatively, one may consider it highly plausible, that The Far Darrig, is a fairy in its youthful mischief stage, the Leprechaun reaching a midlife maturity works hard, and the Clurichaun, later on in life, retires with an alcohol problem!

Same or Different?

Notice how Croker does not mention a resemblance to the Clurichaun; so why Yeats’ connection? Yeats refers to Croker’s work quite regularly. Could it be that time and geography were elements that changed the Clurichaun into the Far Darrig? Not knowing the exact origin of Leprechaun or his counterparts it is hard to say, but you could imagine stories of the Clurichaun, wearing his red waistcoat, traveling North from the South West of Ireland and upon its return it was something new, something different. It was the Red Man, the Fear Dearg.  In pre 1800’s Ireland, it is easy to imagine how long it would take for a person to travel from Cork where the Clurichaun lives to Donegal where the Far Darrig is known. Surely the person making the journey would change by the time of his return. Stories would be heard and forgotten changed and passed on, misunderstood in translation and adapted to suit the listeners’ wants and needs. 

“The main point of distinction between the Cluricaune and the Shefro (Trooping Fairies), arises from the sottish and solitary habits of the former, who are rarely found in troops or communities. The Cluricaune of the county of Cork, the Luricaune of Kerry, and the Lurigadaune of Tipperary, appear to be the same as the Leprechan or Leprochaune of Leinster, and the Loghery-man of Ulster ; and these words are probably all provincialisms of LUACÁNMAN the Irish for a pigmy.”

- Thomas Crofton Croker

The Love Talker

Was Kearney’s Geancanach, at one time, another mood of our Leprechaun?

“The Gean-canach (love-talker) was another diminutive being of the same tribe, but, unlike the Luchryman, he personated love and idleness, and always appeared with a dudeen in his jaw in lonesome valleys, and it was his custom to make love to shepherdesses and milkmaids : it was considered very unlucky to meet him ; and whoever was known to have ruined his fortune by devotion to the fair sex was said to have met a Geancanach. The dudeen, or ancient Irish tobacco pipe found in our raths, is still popularly called a Geancanach’s pipe.”

- N. O’Kearney, 1854


“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. They dress with all unfairy homeliness, and are, indeed, most sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms. They are the practical jokers among the good people.”

- W.B. Yeats, "Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry," 1889

The misrepresentations of the creature commonly known as The Leprechaun are endless; too many to include in this piece. Could it be that the many personalities named here are individuals that were at one time part of the Shefro or Sheogue; the trooping Fairies? This question, along with others surrounding the elusive Leprechaun, were unsolved in the time where the Leprechaun walked freely by the hedgerows, and today it is going to remain that way. We now know what the leprechaun has become, but we do not know where he originated from. Like his stories, he seems to have just appeared subtly in the background and the people of old Ireland kept him alive passing him through the oral tradition of storytelling...slowly warping him. However, like the creature himself, it seems that by taking our gaze off of him, we have let his true self disappear into the thin air from which he arrived. Whatever the origins, changes, pronunciations or names of the Leprechaun, none are greater than the stereotype we know today. The green dress of the modern Leprechaun can be found in Irish folklore, but it is as rare as seeing the Leprechaun himself. It seems the maker of the modern Leprechaun has taken the tiniest snippet from all the originals, added a village idiot theme and spread the word.

Image Credits:

A non-traditional imagining of the Leprechaun from Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You

Far Darrig (http://cermaith.deviantart.com/art/Fear-Dearg-Fir-Darrig-29378331)


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Tags: Celtic, Folklore, Leprechauns, Mythology, St. Patrick's Day


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