Traditionally, the leprechaun is depicted as the dwarf-like man, dressed in green with buckles on their shoes, an apron, and a high-crowned hat. They bury their gold and treasure and are quick, so if you catch one, you’d better keep him in your sight if you want him to hand over his riches. But careful, he’s a trickster and will do everything in his power to keep his gold for himself.
As the “national elf” of Ireland, he often represents Irish hospitality, telling stories over a roasting fire and sharing his poteen, but he is anything but innocent and nice. A dark and gloomy creature and not very good company at that, the woes of the world have soaked into him. Selfish little creatures, they’re not much for sharing and kindness. In fact, they’re rather spiteful. Because of this, Irish households left offerings of milk, cheese, and twists of tobacco on their doorsteps to keep them from wreaking havoc on their homes. An offering of whiskey often had the reverse effect, however.
Further back, leprechauns were thought to be descendants of fallen angels, and they maintain their Irish origins from words such as: luch (mouse), lúth (agility), and lurga (ankle), thus creating the myth that they were tiny and fast, like the mouse, with rather large feet.
More interestingly, lore depicts several types of leprechauns, like the grogochs, pechts, tallas, cluricauns, Sheela-na-gigs, or dwarves in Norse mythology. The grogochs were opposite what many think of leprechauns today, slow, dim-witted, and dirty with no desire for riches. Instead, they sought gratitude for their labors and had good hearts, but more on them in a different post.
Most often invisible, leprechauns were noted by clouds of smoke or dust, creating the tradition of throwing one’s shoe into it. This would force the leprechaun to drop what he held, like a load of gold or a human—most often unbaptized babies—being carried off to the faerie world.
This relates to their profession—the cobbler or shoemaker. They were known to create new shoes for faerie balls or were merely those who repaired and restored old shoes worn from frivolous dancing. This stems from a time when shoes and boots were expensive and seen as highly-prized pieces of clothing. Thus, the leprechaun was seen as an artisan, a central and much-beloved figure in the faerie world, for they loved to dance.
However, shoemaking was not the only occupation the leprechaun took, like builders and stonemasons—sometimes credited for building the ancient Irish mounds—metalworkers or smiths, distillers or musicians, and bankers.
Leprechauns adapt well to their surroundings, finding places to hide and live, like old churches, ruined castles, and ancient fortresses, or they might dwell in human artefacts, abandoned beehives, the eaves of barns, old boxes, or discarded kettles. Essentially, they seek shelter from the elements in already constructed places rather than forming their own.
Often seen as solitary creatures, they actually formed clans—the four best known represented the four provinces of Ireland, Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connaught—each with their own special skills and talents. Other than some sweeping generalizations about the groupings, not much is known about the way they classified themselves, but what we do know is that the leprechaun courts often held judgements against humans, especially those who slighted a faerie, and there were no appeals to sentences, such as absolute bankruptcy, twisted limbs or spine, illness, and occasionally, a long and painful death.
It might surprise some, but there is a wealth of knowledge about leprechauns, their origins, and their society beyond the gimmick we see on St. Patty’s Day. If you want to know more, let me know in the comments below.
Until then, look forward to further peeks into my shelf of mythological books…okay three shelves. Shh, don’t judge me.
Want to know more about my take on the leprechaun? Sign-up to be get your ARC copy of “The Shoemaker’s Apprentice,” my short story about Boden’s journey home.
Long ago, the death of his little sister broke his family apart.
After a close call left him blind in one eye, Boden must return to the home he fled as a young leprechaun.
For hundreds of years, he has feared facing his family and punishment for his sister’s death.
Boden needs to make up for his mistakes before he can fight a war for the woman he loves.
Find out what secrets are unleashed in THE SHOEMAKER’S APPRENTICE.
Curran, Bob. “The Truth About the Leprechaun.” Wolfhound Press, 2000.