“Magic Sandra’s seen a leprechaun, Eddie touched a troll, Laurie danced with witches once, Charlie found some goblins gold. Donald heard a mermaid sing, Susy spied an elf, But all the magic I have known I’ve had to make myself.” -Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends
The name leprechaun may be derived from the Irish word leipreachán, meaning “a sprite or pigmy”. There is also the possibility their name morphed out of early legends of water spirits called “luchorpán” meaning small body. Another related Irish word leath bhrogan, means shoe maker. The early legends of the leprechauns portrayed them as almost normal-size people of the Aos Sí, “people of the mounds”. In other words, the magical people who dwelled within the land itself. They were vanquished Tuatha Dé Danann whose primary occupation was making and mending shoes of the fairies, another diminutive of the Tuatha Dé. According to Yeats, the fairies needed so many shoes because “of their love of dancing they (the Fae) will constantly need shoes”. These figures are thought to be descendents of earlier characters and in essence became “smaller” both in stature and in character. Many people attribute this to the rise in Christianity and essentially wanting to put less moral weight on old folklore and characters. It’s unclear whether they were essentially always the same character serving the Tuatha Dé or if they, themselves, were a new character born alongside the idea of the small fairies popularized in Medieval Britain and Ireland.
The earliest reference to a leprechaun appears in the Medieval tale known as the Echtra Fergus mac Léti, which at least in the story is set in the 2nd century BCE. The tale itself was written in the 14th century. In it the king of Ulster falls asleep on the beach and wakes to find himself being dragged into the sea by three leprechauns. He captures them instead and they grant him three wishes in exchange for their release.
Many famous Irish poets and story tellers wrote about leprechauns. One early example, as described by Samuel Lover, written in 1831, describes the leprechaun as “… quite a beau in his dress, notwithstanding, for he wears a red square-cut coat, richly laced with gold, and inexpressible of the same, cocked hat, shoes and buckles.” A later portrayal by William Yeats is similar in most ways, but describes them more as solitary fairies, that wear red jackets. He went on to say that “trooping fairies,” (again, different from leprechauns), wear green. “The leprechaun’s jacket has seven rows of buttons with seven buttons to each row.” On the western coast, he writes, “the red jacket is covered by a frieze one, and in Ulster the creature wears a cocked hat, and when he is up to anything unusually mischievous, he leaps on to a wall and spins, balancing himself on the point of the hat with his heels in the air.” This description by Yeats may have been the start of ‘Irish green’ becoming the color of the leprechauns or there were simply different descriptions according to locale and the green version became most popular.
Leprechauns were overall described as frequently being dressed in cobbler’s attire and seen working with a shoe or counting their coins. They were typically portrayed as old and surly after a lifetime of hard work mending shoes. They became famous for being obsessive over their black pots of gold that could be easily hidden, sometimes at the end of rainbows. As illustrated in the above referenced medieval tale, if you happened to catch a leprechaun they were said to grant you three wishes in exchange for their freedom. In some stories, you might only have to steal his lucky coin, amulet or magical ring to receive three wishes in return for it. Dealing with them could be tricky because they were often portrayed as smart, quick witted, enjoyed riddles and jokes and were often deceiving. Although they were not “wholly evil or good” according to 18th century Irish folk writer, David McAnally. Leprechauns were mostly solitary creatures and if not solitary, they were seen in groups of three. Clover was often said to crop up where a leprechaun laid dead.
“…A wrinkled, wizen’d, and bearded Elf,
Spectacles stuck on his pointed nose, Silver buckles to his hose,
Leather apron — shoe in his lap…”
-William Allingham, 18th century
The leprechaun unfortunately has often been a contentious character depending on the context of its use. The reason being is the character is often overly monetized and exploited, such as the famous Lucky Charms leprechaun. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most well known and loved characters around the world that continues to inspire the imagination.