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Leprechauns, Shamrocks, Snakes, Oh My!: Irish Folklore

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

Faith and Begorra!  It’s March again, which brings us to think about spring, St. Patrick’s Day, and little people.  Eh, what??  Little people, you say?

The Fomorians, John Duncan’s interpretation of the sea gods of Irish mythology

We all know about leprechauns and their pots of gold (if nothing else from the Lucky Charms cereal commercials): little men dressed mostly in green who’ve buried their treasure at the end of the rainbow and don’t want anyone to find it (an ironic choice).  In past centuries many have tried to find these pots of gold at the end of rainbows, but most never did.

In Irish folklore, stories and tales of “the little people” abound.  We’ve heard these names: leprechauns, banshees, pookas, and selkies. Most of the fantastic creatures from Irish folklore did not like humans.  According to the legends, the first inhabitants of Ireland were the Fomorians, who were said to have been giant-like.  They were supernatural beings who kept being pushed off the good land of Ireland by humans and the other supernatural race—the Tuatha de Dannann (or the Fae).

Painting by John Bauer of two trolls with a human child they have raised

According to legend, both of these races were pushed out of Ireland by human invaders.  The Fomorians and the Tuath de Dannann fought each other regularly, but the Formorians were ultimately defeated.  The Fae were also defeated by humans, the early Irish, and were consigned to live underground, occasionally kidnapping children and replacing them with changelings.  They were also known to take unwary humans underground to keep as entertainment for a while, which was always longer than the human expected.  The Tuatha de Dannann became known as “The Little People” partly to reduce the terror of the stories told about them, and also because they became lost in the myths of Irish legends.

One of the most well-known of the Little People is the leprechaun.  Anyone who has seen Darby O’Gill and the Little People knows what a leprechaun looks like; most people recognize them from Lucky Charms cereal and remember “They’re magically delicious!” (the Lucky Charms, not the leprechauns). But long ago, leprechauns weren’t nice or friendly.  They knew all humans wanted their pot of gold, which as everyone knows is at the end of the rainbow.  Here are a few things you probably never knew about them.

  • Leprechauns are fairies.  Fairies are the little people of Ireland and leprechauns are little people; therefore they are fairies
  • If you are kind to them, they might give you a golden reward—you may find a golden coin for your trouble
  • There are no female leprechauns
  • Sean Connery may have won the role of James Bond after Albert (Cubby) and Jane Broccoli saw the movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People, starring Connery.  They thought he had the sex appeal needed to play Bond
  • There is a supposed colony of them in Portland, Oregon in a tiny park dedicated to the magical creatures
  • Sometimes they are dressed all in red—these may be their cousins, the clurichauns, though.  These red garbed fairies are mean and drunk.  Some say that the red clurichauns are what leprechauns become at night after a wee bit of whisky
  • At Carlingford Mountain, there are supposed actual remains of a leprechaun under glass.  A business man found a tiny suit, gold coins and some bones after hearing a scream.  The earth was also scorched near the site
  • They are protected under European law.  The Carlingford site is considered a Heritage site, protecting the colony of leprechauns and the plants and animals that live in its vicinity
  • Although the legend of the leprechaun is known mainly of Ireland, other countries have legends of small men.  Although the gnome doesn’t wear all green, he fits the bill as a small magical creature
  • Leprechaun means small body in Middle Irish—that fits, since they are small men
  • The leprechaun is the mascot for the University of Notre Dame (The Fighting Irish!) now, but it wasn’t always.
  • You can make a leprechaun trap—all you need to get started is something shiny to lure the little men. The traps can be simple as a shoebox, or elaborate as your family can imagine. Although no one has caught anything yet—that anyone knows of—it doesn’t hurt to try!
  • An Irish Blessing for St. Patrick’s Day

Wishing you a rainbow

For sunlight after showers

Miles and miles of Irish smiles

For golden happy hours

Shamrocks at your doorway

For luck and laughter too

And a host of friends that never ends

Each day your whole life through.

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