Short story: The origins of the Irish leprechaun

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Ali Isaac, author of Grá mo Chroí and The Tir na Nog Trilogy celebrates St Patrick’s day with our readers by sharing some folklore on the origins of the Irish leprechaun.

Known in Irish as the leipreachán, this mischievous little fellow is usually depicted as an old man, about three feet tall, with distinctive red hair and beard. He wears a fancy green or red overcoat and matching hat. He is always said to be drunk on home-brewed poteen!

The word leprechaun is thought to be a corruption of the Old Irish luchorpán, meaning ‘small body’. It may also derive from the Irish leath bhrogan, which means ‘shoemaker’.

According to folklore, he makes shoes and hides his wealth in a pot at the end of the rainbow. It’s possible that his treasure was obtained by digging up the hoards left behind by our ancient ancestors, who often secretly buried their possessions to keep them safe.

He is said to be intelligent, cunning and devious, a rather comical figure who loves practical jokes, a being neither good nor evil. He shuns the company of humans, finding them slow-witted and greedy.

The cluricaun is a type of leprechaun which enters people’s homes under cover of darkness with the sole aim of causing havoc and destruction. He will steal anything, especially wine and food. They also like to take sheep, goats, dogs and even domestic fowl and ride them throughout the countryside at night.

The earliest known reference to the leprechaun appears in the medieval story, the Echtra Fergus mac Léti, or the Adventure of Fergus son of Léti. This is one of my favourite Irish myths.

Fergus mac Leti was a King of Ulster who fell asleep one day on the beach. Three little sprites called lúchorpáin came up out of the water and tried to steal him away.

The coldness of the sea awoke him, and he lunged at the creatures, catching one in each hand and crushing the third to his chest. They promised to grant him one wish if he let them go, to which he agreed, and asked for the power to be able to swim deep under water without having to surface for air.

They gave him magical herbs with which to plug his ears, but warned him not to swim under Lough Rudraige (Dundrum Bay).

Being a King, Fergus was used to doing as he liked, so of course he disregarded their advice, and encountered a massive, fearsome sea-serpent called Muirdris.

His terror caused a facial disfigurement, which his people kept secret from him, as a king must be whole and perfectly formed. One day, seven years later, a spiteful servant girl revealed the truth after he beat her unfairly. Shocked, Fergus decided to confront Muirdris once again.

They battled for a night and a day, the sea turning red with blood about them, but Fergus emerged onto the shore victorious, bearing the great brute’s head. Fergus’s good looks were restored, but sadly, he immediately collapsed and died from his efforts.

Copyright Ali Isaac, 2015

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