On St. Patrick’s Day, Americans celebrate the Celtic holiday adorned in green attire and accessories, wishing “the luck of the Irish” to friends and hoping to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. “Lucky the Leprechaun” even makes year-round appearances on the delicious, sugary Lucky Charms cereal boxes. But where did these symbols and traditions originate, and what do they have in common? They all share one thing –– a small, old man dressed in green with a red beard, pointed hat and pipe in hand.
The leprechaun is a symbol of luck in the United States, but these mysterious creatures do not have a history of such positive significance. The first appearance of leprechauns dates back to the 8th century Irish folklore, describing water spirits called “luchorpán,” meaning “small body.” In 1604, the character first appeared in the English Language as “lubrican,” a spirit not yet associated specifically with the Irish. The origin of the leprechaun is the amalgam of many different fairies, but these water spirits evolved over time into the generalized mischievous Irish fairy that we know now. They became distinguishable as a small, old man living in solitude with lustful and capricious tendencies and are said to be the original inhabitants of the island. Their nature can differ within different Irish tales, some depicting them as sly, others nasty, and some as enjoying a few spirits too many, but overall, these miniature beings are ones that cannot be trusted.
Leprechauns in today’s culture are always associated with the color green, however, they have different appearances in history based on the area of Ireland where the folktale comes from. Prior to the 20th century, leprechauns were always red, not green; this changed when green began to be associated with Irish culture. William Allingham is credited with the modern image of a leprechaun in his poem The Lepracaun; or, Fairy Shoemaker, describing a small man with a red beard, emerald green hat with a golden four-leaf clover and a suit with a large, buckled belt. These creatures began sporting green to match their country, along with the fact that green aids them as a camouflage in the forest during their endeavors of hiding their secret treasure.
The modern leprechaun is also associated with riches and wealth, but leprechauns are actually the lowly fairy shoemakers of Ireland. They are recognized by the distinctive tapping sound of a cobbler hammer driving nails into shoes; however, they are never portrayed as working on more than one shoe. Although they are only mere cobblers in trade, they are sought out for their buried treasure that they guard with their cunning wit. In tales passed down through Irish oral storytelling, humans sought out their pots of treasure scattered about in forests or at the end of rainbows. If he is found and caught, one can gain access to his treasure as well as bartering his freedom for the granting of three wishes. Although leprechauns are known to be very elusive, they are said to be vulnerable to direct human attention; tales always describe an invented distraction that breaks human attention, enabling the leprechaun to escape. Even if you cannot hold onto the diminutive fairy, just the act of spotting one is said to be good luck.
Leprechauns are now recognized as a symbol of Irish culture, able to both celebrate and belittle the Irish in their ways. They are also a symbol of morality, as their legends warn against the fallacies of greed and the desire of gaining wealth quickly. But perhaps their popularity and resonance is due to the fact these cantankerous creatures suggest the existence of a world beyond the physical realm. No matter if you see them as symbols of deceit or luck, these small Irish fairies will always be the enigmatic figures of desire, challenging all who attempt to gain their wealth. May the luck of the Irish be with you!