Everyone knows a couple of things about leprechauns (aka lurachmain, lurican, leprechawn, lepracaun, leprechaun, lubberkin and lurgadhan). They’re small, tricky gingers that, if caught, will show you the money. One theory about the word’s origin is that it comes from luacharma’n (or luchorpán), the Irish word for “pygmy.” Another theory is that the word is derived from leath bhrogan, meaning “shoemaker.” Not as many people know but leprechauns usually find employment as cobblers orshoemakers. Presumably they make and repair the shoes of other faerie folk and Tuatha Dé Danann, because how else could they make money off each other if they all practice the same trade? And leprechauns make money. If you lay your eyes on one, don’t look away or they’ll vanish.
Although the Irish believe that leprechauns emigrated from the island of Fir Bolg, they’ve nonetheless become one of the most common stereotypical images of Eire, along with that Romano-British Englishman, Sanctus Patricius, whose saint day is (of course) today.
The oldest usage of the word “leprechaun” appears as lubrican in Thomas Dekker’s hit comedy of 1605, The Honest Whore, Part 2. One of the oldest known graven images of a leprechaun is an engraving from 1858. What’s something of a surprise to modern society is that back
then leprechauns favored natty red attire. In 1831, Samuel Lover described a leprechaun thusly: “…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.” William Butler Yeats echoed that view thirty years later when he wrote of the leprechaun, “He is something of a dandy, and dresses in a red coat with seven rows of buttons, seven buttons on each row, and wears a cocked-hat, upon whose pointed end he is wont in the north-eastern counties, according to McAnally, to spin like a top when the fit seizes him.”
It’s not clear when the modern image of the ghetty green leprechaun arose but that’s the image most of us are familiar with and the one cemented, in large part, by film, TV, video games and, of course, sugar cereal.
Three Wise Fools (1946), Luck of the Irish (1948), Shamrock Hill (1949),
Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Disneyland’s “I Captured the King of the Leprechauns,“ and Droopy Leprechaun (all 1959),
Bonanza’s “Hoss and the Leprechauns” (1963), Bewitched‘s “The Leprechaun” (1966), Finian’s Rainbow (1968),
Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold (1981), Leprechaun (1982), Getting Lucky (1989)
Leprechaun (1993),Leprechaun 2 (1994), Leapin’ Leprechauns (1995)
Leprechaun 3 1995), Leprechaun 4 – In Space (1996), Leapin’ Leprechauns 2: Spellbreaker (1996)
(1998), Very Unlucky Leprechaun (1998), Magical Legend of the Leprechauns (1999)
White Pony (1999), Leprechaun in the Hood (2000), Luck of the Irish (2001)
Irish Myths and Legends (2003) and Leprechaun – Back 2 tha Hood (2003)
Not pictured: Leprechaun’s Gold (1949), Shamus (1959), Legends of the Isles – Fairies (1998), the Beverly Hills 90210 episode “The Leprechauns” (1999).
The leprechaun has appeared even more often in music. In fact, there are just too many traditional songs with leprechauns to mention. There are a couple of pop songs as well, including Dino O’Dell and the Veloci-Rappers’ “Find Me a Leprechaun,” Sesame Street Gangsters’ “Gay Leprechauns,” Rosemary Clooney’s “Shaun, Shaun the Leprechaun,” Snakefinger’s “Jesus Was a Leprechaun,” Henry Mancini’s “Something for the Leprechaun,” Dixie Dregs’ “Leprechaun Promenade,” Thomas Newman’s “Leprechaun (Threesome),” The Fugs’ “Leprechaun” and the Spade Cooley/Randall Williams/Pinnacle Boys piece, “Latin Leprechaun.”
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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