Leprechauns have captured our imagination for centuries. We see them in books, movies, and on the side of cereal cartons. If you walk around asking people, “What is a leprechaun?” I think you’d find it hard to find someone without an opinion.
“Then Mother Church came along and turned us all into saints, and trolls, and faeries. General Mills did the rest.” – Mad Sweeney, American Gods
But, What is a Leprechaun?
Not the leprechaun from the film franchise. Not the leprechaun from a box of Lucky Charms. What is a leprechaun?
A leprechaun is a being from Irish/Celtic mythology. The stories go back to the time of the Tuatha Da Danann—the tribe of the goddess Dana. They were a tall, beautiful people known for their mastery of many skills, including magic.
The tribe ruled Ireland for several hundred years, fighting their enemies, the Fomorian giants led by Balor of the Evil Eye. Later, the Milesians defeated the Tuatha Da Danann, forcing them to hide underground. During this time, they changed into a smaller, unseen race. Some suspect leprechauns are descendants of this race.
Imagine you’re walking down a dirt road. Long grasses grow along the side. The wind blows, gently pushing the stalks.
You hear laughter coming from the depths of the weeds. Deciding to investigate, you lean down, parting the grass with your hands.
A small stump sits in a clearing behind the brush. There is a man, no taller than three feet, sitting on the stump with a red beard. His three-pointed hat follows his head as he bounces from side to side singing a tune. A shoe made of leather, leaves, bark, and brush, lays in his lap. The man raises a small cobblers hammer while holding a tack in his mouth. Holding a tack in the other hand, he hammers the shoe, trying to finish it.
A muffled tune escapes his lips as they hold a tack between them. His head bounces from side to side. Occasionally, he laughs, amusing himself as he works.
Distracted by his task, he doesn’t hear you coming up behind him. You call to the man. He jerks upon hearing your voice, but he doesn’t acknowledge you. He continues working, ignoring your presence from inside his green smock.
Reaching out, you grab the man.
You’ve just caught a leprechaun.
The leprechaun painfully asks, “What do you want?”
The question is, What would you do if you caught a leprechaun?
Leprechauns are cobblers for the Fae world. You might know them as Faeries. I prefer the word Fae because not all Fae are Faeries. The word ‘leprechaun’ is Gaelic for a shoemaker. They are the descendants of the Tuatha Da Danann—a smaller, magical evolution of the race. They make new shoes, rarely finishing a pair as they hide in the grass and woodlands from prying eyes.
Leprechauns tend to be cranky and humorous, with black eyes and a squeaky voice. They carry two purses at their side. It’s rumored they live up to 300 years.
Imagine the things you could learn in 300 years… maybe even magic!
Everyone knows leprechauns are associated with pots of gold and/or hoards of treasure. The pot of gold seems to be more of a modern twist. They don’t carry their pot of gold. Their treasure tends to be hidden—commonly thought to be at the end of a rainbow. From my reading, the rainbow also seems to be more of a modern belief.
This is where the mythology gets really interesting.
One of my favorite series of research books is by Brian Froud. The artwork in the books brings Fae beings to life. If you want to read more about other magical creatures-pixies, sirens, gnomes, brownies, giants, trolls-make sure to read through his collection of stories.
How Does Leprechaun Gold Work?
Some leprechauns carry a single silver coin and a single gold coin. In one pouch, they have the silver coin. If someone catches them, they try to bribe the person with the silver coin. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
If a person persists for the gold, the leprechaun gives them the gold coin. They show the empty bag, so the person would continue on knowing they were one gold coin richer.
Or were they?
Once the person reaches into their pocket, they’ll find it empty. The coin would vanish, instantly returning to the leprechaun’s pouch.
Anytime the leprechaun needs to pay up, they will use the coin. The seller will pocket the coin, it would reappear in the bag, and the leprechaun would hand another (the same coin) to the seller again.
A nifty trick.
Some leprechauns have other vanishing tricks. It’s said that only beings with Fae blood can keep a hold of leprechaun gold. If you weren’t part of the blood line, the gold would turn to dust, leaves, or stone later in the day.
Only a person with Fae blood can hold on to leprechaun gold. Which also begs the question, do people of Fae bloodlines exist?
The Leprechaun Who Tricks a Greedy Bride
These beings can instantly sense your motives. If you wish them harm, wish to steal their gold, they’ll find a way to trick you and have a good laugh.
In one story, a bride finds a leprechaun and catches him. She is beside herself, thinking only about all the beautiful dishes and material goods she can buy with his stash of gold.
But, how will she carry it all back?
The leprechaun catches onto her thoughts. He looks over a hill, asking, “Say, isn’t that your betrothed coming over the hill? He can help you carry the gold.”
Not keeping her eyes on the leprechaun, the bride looks over to call her groom.
The leprechaun vanishes from her clutches, leaving her with nothing.
The work done by the authors of the Spiderwick Chronicles is another great source of reading material and visual aids. You might be thinking, “What? That’s a kids book!” In fact, the whole series is well researched in regards to the Fae world and materials that existed before the time of Spiderwick.
Molly Murphy and the Scorched Leprechaun – a Psychopath in the Making
Molly Murphy was a selfish child who had to have her way. She was often called “Molly Coddle” by her classmates.
On her way home from school, she finds several mushrooms growing on the side of the road. Molly kicks and smashes them.
A man yells out, “Hey! Stop! You’re destroying my lunch!”
Molly looks over finding a leprechaun in the brush and snatches him up. He knew her ways, knew she was a greedy child, and refused to tell her where his gold was stored.
She wanted his gold, and she would find it no matter what.
Running home, she carried the leprechaun into the kitchen and stoked the fire, never letting go of her prisoner. Once the metal grates were heated, she held the leprechaun against the hot steel.
The heat burned the man’s shoes until he gave into Molly’s demands.
Who does that? What child says ‘Let’s burn him’? Apparently, Molly Murphy.
He tells her the gold is buried where she found him. Molly is excited, ready to head off and dig up buried treasure when her mother bursts in the door. Startled, she drops the leprechaun, and he rushes out, disappearing in the distance.
Molly runs out to the field and digs hole after hole, never finding the treasure. She gives up.
Her father walks past the field when he returns from his day away. The field appears to be tilled even though he hadn’t done so. Then he hears a voice.
The voice calls across the field, “You can find my gold at midnight at the bottom of the quarry, but don’t bring your wife.”
The father knows he heard a leprechaun. Excited, he rushes home and tells his wife. Then he heads to the quarry.
His wife, being the mother of Molly Murphy, is just as greedy. She’s determined to find the gold first. Rushing out of the house, she takes a shortcut to the quarry, falls down the rocks, and breaks her leg.
Her husband approaches, hearing moans from the bottom as though some demon is guarding the treasure. He finds his wife, pulls her out, and returns home.
When they get home, he goes to place his wife in bed, only to find the bed covered in mushrooms. They hear the leprechaun laughing in the distance.
He found his revenge.
How a Farmer Is Tricked by Red Ribbons
There was a farmer who found a leprechaun by a field. He catches the leprechaun and interrogates him. The leprechaun tells him the gold is buried under a plant in the field.
The farmer faces a conundrum.
He needs a shovel, but doesn’t know which plant to dig under. Leprechauns disappear quickly, so he can’t let go.
The leprechaun provides a solution. He points to a red ribbon. “If you give me that ribbon, I promise to tie it around the plant.”
A promise is a promise.
The farmer lets the leprechaun go, hands him the ribbon, and runs to grab a shovel.
Upon returning, he finds red ribbons tied to every plant in the field.
Leprechauns Help Those Who Help Others
This is my favorite story. There is a boy who reads. He reads all the time. All he wants to do is read more and help others with his knowledge.
Coming back from town, he finds a leprechaun. As per usual, he catches the leprechaun and interrogates him. The leprechaun takes him on a journey to a stone fort.
Inside the fort is a gold pot—in some versions gold coins are laying all over the floor. The leprechaun tells the boy, “You have two minutes to grab everything you can. After that time, the stone doors will slam shut and you’ll be trapped forever.”
The boy scrambles to grab as many coins as possible. He runs out of the fort as the door slams shut.
Leprechauns can sense your motives. They know if you are greedy or generous. In cases of generosity, they’ll lend a hand. As with the boy, there’s always a catch, though… or was there?
I’ve read two versions of this story. First, when the boy returns home, he finds that the gold reappears in his pocket every night. Like the coins the leprechauns use to trick people, the boy can now spend money without spending money.
The second version says the boy goes to the bank and deposits the money.
I like the first version better. It’s more magical.
In either case, the boy buys books, reads, and becomes very wise. He helps people, doing good things in the world. It’s said his descendants are still rich and good to this day.
The question becomes, are these just stories or are they truth? What do you believe?
Maybe some historical event pushed their ancestors underground, into another dimension, or some higher evolution. Maybe they are just stories. Either way, the leprechaun will live into eternity as a fixture of Irish magic and myth.
I like that a mysterious man, clad in green, punishes the greedy and rewards the generous. You might think they are tricky, evil, or just plain mean. Maybe they have good hearts, but don’t put up with shenanigans.
We need more leprechauns.
I’ve been reading about the Fae world since before I can remember. My shelves are filled with research materials. In some cases, I have trouble remembering where I read certain descriptions and references due to the sheer amount of books on my shelf. If you are ever interested in reading more about the Fae world, these research notes will always include a few books that helped with the post.
Leprechauns, Legends and Irish Tales by Hugh McGowan is another great addition to any Fae library. The book focuses on Irish folklore, giving the reader a background on Leprechauns, Banshees, Pookas, and more.