A leprechaun or Irish leprechaun is a small humanoid creature from Irish folklore. He is often depicted as a small old man with a beard, wearing a hat and dressed in red or green. The Irish leprechaun is said to spend his time making shoes, pulling pranks and counting the gold coins he keeps in a hidden cauldron at the foot of a rainbow. If he ever gets captured, he can grant three wishes in exchange for his release.
The Irish leprechaun is attached to the creatures of the "little people" and sometimes compared or confused with the leprechaun or leprechaun of Scottish folklore.
Introducing the Irish Leprechaun
Let's start by introducing this colorful little character, for the few people living in a cave or just waking up from a sleep of several decades. It is a small being (90cm), dressed in green, with a characteristic hat and a cobbler's apron. It takes its English name from the Gaelic “luacharman“. He very often wears a 4-leaf clover on his hat and smokes a pipe. What is he smoking in his pipe? We don't really know, but certainly something quite unusual and not necessarily good for ordinary mortals, we are talking about the Leprechaun after all!
This character has been used in many works like TV series and movies. He appears in some episodes of The Simpsons, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in Bones etc. It also inspired the horror film Leprechaun Origins, which further amplifies its somewhat borderline image. Indeed, while some people describe him as a beneficial being, a kind of masculine fairy, he is also presented as the son of an evil spirit and a degenerate fairy (charming say so). But in the majority of cases, this would be a cynical little being, spending his time playing bad taste pranks (a kind of prankster elf) and making shoes. He is also very attracted to money and has a cauldron full of gold coins which he jealously protects.
The Irish Leprechaun: a mythological being
The origin of the Irish Leprechaun is explained in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, better known in English as The Book of Invasions. This work is a collection of poems and mythological stories telling the Irish history of the creation of the world until the Middle Ages. It is explained that the Leprechauns are descendants of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, people of fantastic creatures who tried to invade Ireland with the help of their druids with formidable magical powers. But, rejected by the Gaelic people, an agreement was made to leave the buried half of the world (underground in other words) to the Tuatha Dé Dannan when the other half, more airy, was left to the Gaelic people. One might think that the ancestors of the Leprechauns were fooled, but the little guys have finally adapted very well to the undergrounds by building comfortable burrows there which allow them to count their gold in peace.
The Ambiguous Character of the Irish Leprechaun
However, under his sympathetic airs, this mysterious little being hides an ambiguity that imposes mistrust. First of all the legend reminds us that the Irish Leprechaun is the descendant of a people of invaders. Then, if he likes to play music and dance, the Irish leprechaun is also known for his bad temper, his sociability and above all, his craftiness. Indeed the little being is a fan of pranks and sleight of hand. For example, he always walks around with two leather purses in which there is a magic one-shilling coin which returns to the purse each time it is used (deceitful but practical) and a gold coin which serves him to get out of bad times (the ancestor of the bribe in a way).
Because indeed it happens that the Irish Leprechaun gets caught, and if you ask him, he will have to tell you where his treasure is hidden. Indeed, despite his sly character, the Irish leprechaun never lies. But be careful, because if you look away even for a moment, it will disappear. It is this bipolar character between honesty and deceit that raises questions because myths always deliver a moral. Should we understand the legend in a negative way and derive from it that we must always be wary of others, specifically in matters of money? Or should we interpret the myth in a positive way by concluding that you have to know how to use tricks to get out of a bad situation, while maintaining a certain honesty (the Leprechaun never lies)? If cunning is often seen as a quality (Greek mythology has contributed to this with the Odyssey), the border is thin between skill and deceit, especially with the Irish Leprechaun.
A modern deviance
Besides its ambiguous character, the small mythological being has an ambivalent effect on the appreciation of Irish folklore outside the island. The Irish Leprechaun today has a distorted image: it is presented as an old man with red bearded, who wears green clothes (the opposite effect of Coca-Cola on Santa Claus) adorned with a three-leaf clover. The Irish Leprechaun sadly carries with it all the stereotypes associated with Ireland. It is the rise of tourism on the island which has favored the production of this false traditional Irish image which tends to impoverish a mythology and folklore which is nevertheless very rich. Fortunately, the real Leprechauns are quietly counting their gold in their burrow and do not witness this deviance which rubs off on their image, and on their jackets.