The Origin of Leprechauns


Lilian Chong, Staff Writer

The American depiction of leprechauns is often debunked by warped history and lore. Irish people observe St. Patrick’s Day annually on Mar. 17 to practice religious duties, such as attending church and feasting on traditional meals like corned beef and cabbage. Although we may interpret the holiday to be recognition of a patron saint named Saint Patrick, it’s also important to note the Irish folklore of leprechauns and Irish American traditions that have influenced the green holiday we know today. 

The mythology and symbols in St. Patrick’s life have become an integral part of modern Irish culture. The fascinating emblems recognized on the holiday include the leprechaun, pot of gold, shamrock, shillelagh, color green, and harp. 

According to the tradition, leprechauns are the reason why we wear green—on threat of being pinched. In Irish folklore, leprechauns—so-called Faerie folk, “wee folk,” or “little people”—were solitary shoemakers for Irish fairies. They resided in remote areas in Ireland away from populous regions. In Celtic belief, leprechauns could utilize their magic to serve good or evil. Leprechauns were also members of a magical race, Tuatha Dé Danann, according to Irish mythology. After the Tuatha Dé invaded Ireland, they were banished to live underground. However, their short, stout features make them ideal for inhabiting places such as underground caves, rabbit holes, or the hollow trunks of fairy trees.

These mythical tricksters also like to stay near their hidden pots of gold. The gold coins come from the fairies that pay leprechauns for their shoemaking labor. According to American tradition, if you catch a leprechaun, you can force him to tell you where he hid his golden pot. The crock of gold usually appears at the end of a rainbow; however, it’s impossible to find the ending of a limitless rainbow. 

In the family mix, leprechauns are also associated with clurichauns as cousins. Despite similarities in appearance and interests, the clurichaun is the more controversial, mischievous cousin of the leprechaun. Some question whether or not leprechauns are true natives of Ireland and descended from Irish royalty.

Due to the Great Potato Famine of 1845, Irish immigrants migrated to America to seek richer plantations and suitable living conditions. Since then, Irish patriotism has flourished better than ever. Irish Americans take to the streets in green attire or leprechaun costumes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day across the nation. One annual celebration is the dyeing green of the Chicago River in Illinois, where city pollution control workers pour 40 pounds of dye into the river. Americans also celebrate the culture of luck and prosperity on St. Patrick Day by following traditional rules, such as finding a four-leaf clover, wearing green, kissing the blarney stone, and catching a leprechaun, if you can. 

Even today, some Irish politicians believe the paradoxical myth that fairies and leprechauns are responsible for Ireland’s poor infrastructures. In the midst of amending new road traffic legislation, Irish politician Danny Healy-Rae spoke at a 2018 Oireachtas Agriculture Committee symposium, claiming “there was no pot of gold to pay for the government’s 22 billion euro climate change plans.”

To Americans, Healy-Rae’s statement may be viewed as satirical or nonsensical, but in Irish politics, leprechauns symbolize luck and prosperity for the government.  

“There are no leprechauns. The money will have to be extracted from the working people, the private people, the farmers and the business people,” Healy-Rae said.

Greenish hues and good luck charms represent the holiday we know as St. Patrick’s Day. Whether it’s the shenanigans of leprechauns or the dilemma between four or three-leaf clovers, Irish folklore continues to influence diversity in American culture. Don’t forget to wear green on the annual holiday St. Patrick’s Day—or a leprechaun will come and pinch you!


Graphic courtesy of VECTEEZY.COM