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By Jim Ignasher
I recently came across a short news story from 1909 that was presented as fact in several reputable newspapers about a man who encountered a Leprechaun.
“A real live Leprechaun,” the article began, “one of the little folk, is reported to have made his appearance at Newport, Tipperary, where people are credulous. A well-known resident of the district whilst on his way home with a cart of peat, was startled at the appearance of a diminutive man. He was dressed in tightly-fitting pants, coat of brown, white shoes, grey stockings, and a brown cap set off by a red tassel.” Unfortunately for the unnamed man, the Leprechaun vanished into thin air the moment he took his eyes off the little creature.
Five years later another story made the rounds about a peasant boy who was able to determine where a Leprechaun had buried his pot of gold in a field of ragwort. After tying a red ribbon around the particular weed in question he went off to find a shovel. When he returned a short time later, he found every ragwort plant in the entire field adorned with a red ribbon!
Leprechauns have been a part of Irish folklore for centuries, and there have been those who’ve claimed to have encountered one, but do they really exist? While some will answer with an immediate “no”, others are more contemplative, and offer a definite “maybe”. And still others insist that they’re real, and not to be trifled with. In any case, tales about Leprechauns seem to be as common as clover.
Historically speaking, there are two theories as to how the word “Leprechaun” came into being. One holds that it’s derived from “leath brogan” which translates to “shoemaker”. (Leprechauns are said to be expert cobblers.) The second states that it derives from the word “luchorpan” which means “small body”.
While the origin of the word may be open to debate, other “facts” are not.
For example, Leprechauns usually try to avoid human contact, for if captured, they’re obligated to grant three wishes, or surrender their stash of gold in order to gain their freedom. Thus they prefer to live in secluded woodlands, hollow trees, caves, or underground dens. Yet capturing one isn’t as easy as one might think, for if they can get their opponent to avert their eyes, even for a second, they have the power to disappear.
Traditionally, Leprechauns have been universally male, despite modern illustrations to the contrary. Today’s illustrators generally portray Leprechauns wearing green coats and trousers with a green derby or top hat. However, 19th century depictions of Leprechauns often show them wearing red or brown coats with conical headgear.
Folklore tells that Leprechauns can be cunning and mischievous, but generous to anyone who shows them kindness. One folktale relates how a nobleman gave a tired Leprechaun a ride on his horse, and when he returned to his castle found it filled with gold!
It’s interesting to note that Ireland isn’t the only place with small supernatural beings woven into folklore. Native Americans of New England have tales of the Pukwudgie, little men who live in the woods with the ability to suddenly disappear. In Scandinavia there are stories of trolls, and Iceland has the 13 Yule Lads who come down from the mountains at Christmas. European folklore talks of elves; Asia has the Yaksha, Africa the Aziza, and South America the Alux. And one can’t forget to mention other folklore relating to goblins, sprites, pixies, fairies, nymphs, etc. These global folktales may have cultural differences, but they also share certain similarities. With this in mind one could ask, could such beings actually exist, or have existed at one time?
Despite living in the digital age, photos and surveillance camera images of Leprechauns seem to be lacking, but I did find one website with a live-view “Leprechaun web-cam” placed in a rural area reputed to be inhabited by Leprechauns. All one has to do is sit and stare at the same image for hours and hope a Leprechaun ambles by.
Other websites offer instructions for building a “Leprechaun trap”. However, if one bothers a Leprechaun in the town of Carlingford, Ireland, they’re likely to be arrested, for Carlingford has officially granted legal protection to a group of 236 Leprechauns said to be living in a hiking area known as the Sliabh Foy Loop. And for a nominal fee, tourists can view an “authentic” and fully furnished “Leprechaun cave”.
Yet perhaps one doesn’t have to travel to Ireland to spy a Leprechaun. In March of 2006, just before St. Patrick’s Day, a Leprechaun was allegedly sighted resting in a tree in the Crichton neighborhood of Mobile, Alabama. As word spread, dozens of people descended on the location prompting someone to call the media. A news team was dispatched, and even though they were unable to film the actual Leprechaun, they reported the story anyway, and it, as they say, went “viral”. Theories ranged from a man dressed in a Leprechaun suit to a trick of light. And despite the fact that the “Leprechaun” hasn’t been seen since, it’s said that the story still gets a lot of “hits” on Youtube especially around St. Patrick’s Day.
And in Portland, Oregon, there’s a place known as Mill Ends Park which is alleged to be home to Leprechauns. The park was the brain child of journalist Dick Fagan who took it upon himself to plant some flowers in a hole which had been dug for a light pole that the city was planning to erect. Fagan wrote a column for the Oregon Journal called “Mill Ends”. In it, he began incorporating stories about the spot in his writings, some of which included one Patrick O’Toole, the leader of a Leprechaun community living there. The public loved it. The light pole was never installed, and the spot became an official city park.
So, do Leprechauns exist? I have no idea, but it’s fun to speculate.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.