The Leprachaun and Leprachaunism


Engraving of a traditional image of the leprachaun

1.  Introduction

The Leprachaun holds a unique position among the fairy folk of Ireland. They are mischievous elf-like spirits or creatures and as merry sprites are lively little fellows known by several different names (Joyce, 1871). . As small roguish characters in Irish folklore their principal occupation is that of being cobblers, of making and mending a solitary shoe. Small of stature they enjoy playing practical jokes and have a puck-like sense of humour. For some they are a degenerate fairy or evil spirit who, in Ulster, are occasionally associated with a malicious type of fairy called a geanncanac. Even though they are regarded as fairy shoemakers they are associated with hiding and guarding their gold in secret places. Their name is considered a corruption to ‘half-brogue’ which connects with their shoemaking. Originally known as lupracan or luchorpan which means ‘little body’ they are solitary creatures who possess supernatural qualities and even hypnotic powers. The Leprachaun is not to be regarded as a part of the Aes Sidhe or the ‘good people’ because even though they are prone to trickery they are not subject to the taboos applied to other fairies (Winberry, 1976).

2.  Etymology

The word Leprachaun is derived from the Irish word leipreachan meaning ‘pygmy’ or sprite. Most sources regard the term as a expression of the Old Irish word luchorpan or luchorp (Dinneen, 1927). Supposedly a borrowing from the Latin corpus the root is regarded as corp. The root lu meaning  small is combined with corp meaning ‘body’. Therefore it is deemed acceptable etymologically to recognise that lucharmunn, meaning pygmy, dwarf or small gentleman comes from luch (small) and armunn meaning ‘hero’ or ‘warrior’. The Leprachaun or lepracaun, or leipreachan comes from Middle Irish luchorpan for ‘small body’ or Modern Irish leipreachan or luprachan. Another form is the luppercadane and lurricadane (Joyce, 1871).

Another derivation centres around the Leprachaun being the legendary Irish shoemaker. The connection with cobbling is however “…invalid because none of the early accounts suggests any association with shoemaking.” (Winberry, 1976). The etymological citation arises from the fact that Leprachauns are shown working on a single shoe. The confusion stems from the leith brogan meaning ‘one or half-shoe’. Thus – leith means half and brog means shoe, hence leithprachan.

3.  Origins

 Water sprites anticipate the earliest portrayal of the leprechaun as luchoirp or luchorpan. They appear in a text from the 8th century called Echta Fergusa maic Leti or ‘The ‘Adventures of Fergus son of Leti’. During the 13th and 14th centuries there occurred a description of the powers of the lupracan (O’Grady, 1970). This itself had its origin in a poem of mid-8th century date. This suggests an origin of Leprachauns as the lupracans. The suggestion is that the lucopans and lupracans are ancestral to the Leprachauns. his conflicts with the modern or contemporary description. The lucorpans are mentioned in the Ancient Laws of Ireland from the mid-11th century (Ancient Laws, 1865). It can be seen that Leprachaun is the “…generic term employed throughout Ireland, but folk accounts suggest regional preferences.” (Croker, 1870); McAnally, 1888; Kane, 1917). For example in Ulster the Leprachaun is the logheryman or loughryman. In Leinster spellings intimate that Leprachauns were amphibious or aquatic sprites – for example loimreachan and luracan. In Connacht there is also the luracan, in Munster the luchragan, with luchraman in Ulster.

Image (327)

Map showing regional variations of Leprachaun.  Source: Winberry (1976).

There are four common hypotheses postulating the origins of the Leprachauns (Winberry, 1976). Firstly, in the beginning, they were originally spirits of nature who populated primitive man’s world with powers over earthly phenomena. As nature spirits their domain included the land, animals and plants. Secondly, they may be the echoes of aboriginal inhabitants, of relatively small stature, who pestered their conquerors whilst living in underground dwellings (Winberry, 1976). This suggest that these ‘little people’ in reality be the “…uncouth and half-developed Irish Leprachauns…and the Dulachans…no ‘creations of popular fancy’ but the dwindling figures of those darker gods of the ‘dark Iberians’ ” (Squire, 1910). Thirdly, are the Leprachauns the descendants of ancient ancestral spirits? Are such spirits a vague folklore of a peoples who once inhabited Ireland? Finally, are the Leprachauns he vestige of an introduction from outside by Scandinavian invaders (Macculloch, 1932; Macdonald, 1897; Mackay, 1918).

4.  Nature and Appearance

The popular image of the Leprachaun is that of a solitary fairy individual who protects hidden treasure – his so-called crock of gold – an elf perpetually engaged as a cobbler. Their origin, which is poorly understood has been obscured by stereotyped commercialisation, grotesque transformations, and caricature, as well as other accretions, over centuries. The result is that modern concepts of the Leprachaun are no longer representative of the elf-like fairy and their regional variations have become somewhat indefinite.

In appearance, allowing for regional differences and variations, the Leprachaun is a withered, wizened old man of between an inch and a half and two to three feet tall. He is sometimes portrayed as a solitary bearded elf attired in red. The Leprachaun never wore green until the 20th century. Folklore tradition avers that solitary fairies wore red and the trooping fairies wore green. Again, the modern image depicts him with red hair and wearing a green frock coat.

Leprachaun fashion is dated to the 18th century. His cutaway red coat is laced with gold is decorated with shiny buttons (Winberry, 1976), his waistcoat is long and he wears knee breeches with white stockings. The Leprachaun wears small silver buckled shoes and, in keeping with his cobbler image, a long leather apron. His appearance is topped off either by a three-cornered or cocked hat, sometimes a red or green night-cap. In his coat is a pocket where is kept his magic purse containing his spe na skillenagh or ‘shilling fortune’. The shilling in the purse, which never contains more than that sum, is always miraculously replaced.

5.  The Claricaun

The leprechaun is often confused with two other solitary elfin types – the cluricaune and the far darrig. The far darrig is a mischievous fairy and the cluricaune haunts cellars where he imbibes and smokes. The far darrig is also the fear darrig, or fir darrig, or fur dhearga, which is Irish for fear dearg or ‘red man’ (McKillop, 1998). This fairy is derived from the Irish-English folklore tradition and is viewed as a dwarfish, ugly and aggressive mischief maker. Like the Leprachaun he excels in practical jokes. Some two to three feet tall his long grey hair and wrinkled visage is topped by a dangly sugar loaf cap.

The Irish cluricaune, cluricaun, or clutharachan are known in English as the cluricaune, cluricaun, or the cluricane (McKillop, 1998). The cluricaun or cluracan is a solitary and mischievous fairy or spirit in Irish folklore. It is seen as a ‘wee elf’ in southern Ireland with a penchant for drinking and smoking amongst his favourite pastimes (Frost, 1900). Sometimes identified or confused with the Leprachaun he is depicted also as being between six inches and two feet tall. The cluricaun, or clobhar-ceann, is often portrayed as an old shrivelled or wizened figure who has been said to resemble the Leprachaun in appearance and habits. The cluricaun has been regarded also as a night-form of the Leprachaun whose red nose betrays his partiality for the wine cellar which he habitually frequents on his own after his daily chores (Yeats, 1888). Again, some folklorists see the cluricaun as a regional Leprachaun variant (Briggs, 1976). Nonetheless, he is fond of music and plays his pipes at the fairy dances.

As with the Leprachaun the cluricaun is reputed to know the whereabouts of buried or hidden treasure. The cluricaun also carries the ‘shilling fortune’ or spe na scillenagh or ‘purse of shillings’ – sparan na scillinge (McKillop, 1998). yet other sources deny his purse or crock of gold. Having little or no enthusiasm for work the cluricaun enjoys going into wine cellars. Therefore he prefers to remain indoors and only goes abroad to annoy sheep and harry the dogs of shepherds for his amusement. Whilst occupying a wine cellar he drains the casks of their contents as he frightens away any who may attempt to join him. However, during his unique cellar existence he also guards the wine barrels for which he expects his supper in reward. Nonetheless, he is a contradictory and untrustworthy character whose love of mischief means he will both protect the casks as well as pilfer them.

The cluricaun is said to be permanently drunk and as such, unlike his cousin the Leprachaun, can be quite surly. If he is treated fairly by a family the cluricaun will guard the wine cellar but ill-treatment leads to havoc and chaos for the house and stock of wine. Frequently connected to a specific family the cluricaun can function as a ‘buttery spirit’ and act to deter dishonest servants and drunks. The buttery spirit is a dwarfish sprite and an instance of a figure who occurs in European folklore. The attachment to a particular household and its family suggests the cluricaun has the dual role of an ancestral spirit who protects against evil. In appearance the cluricaun wears, as with other solitary fairies, a bright red coat that has large pockets. His fashion is that reminiscent of the 18th century week-end gentleman with silver buckled shoes, a gold laced cap and blue silk stockings (McKillop, 1998). Some are thought to wear a red night-cap and short apron of leather.

Etymologically the derivation of clurican is due to a consonantal shift from luchra to cluri. The cluricaun as a distinct spirit comes from the clochran (thorn bush) and armunn which means “…the one who lives near or under a thorn bush.” (Messenger, 1969). The colour green has been interpreted as a symbol of death. The Aes Sidhe are commonly associated with the barrows and mounds (Briggs, 1970), which suggests that the cluricaun when perceived as ancestral woodland spirits are echoes of pre-Celtic burial practices.

6.  Folklore and Culture

In the realm of Leprachaun folklore there are no females. Without a reproductive biology the implication is that Leprachauns are immortals. As a type of male only fairy the Leprachaun or leipreachan appears in archaic and regional forms as the: luchraman; loimreachan; loragadan; lubrican; luchragan; luprecan; luracan; lurgadan; and lurikeen. The popular depiction is that of an old man plying his trade as a shoemaker and who is no bigger than a small child. They engage in mild mischief and are rich because of their buried treasure (Squire, 1912). Whereas the wearing of red beards and green hats are inventions they are often accused of being dour, ugly, dwarfish and temperamentally gloomy. In addition to being cold and sluggish they are often believed to be querulous, foul of mouth and stupefied by drink.

The Leprachaun or lupracan could be a conceptualisation, in terms of Celtic folklore and culture, as ancient precedents in the form of ancestral spirits. Such spirits would be regarded by the peoples of antiquity as small beings who lived an isolated existence in mounds, groves and trees, who harried their invaders with trickery. This confers upon the leprechaun a peripheral role in folklore with the implication that he was not an original in the spirit world of the Celt. In such a world bounded by the numinous the small size of the Leprachaun would associate him with the spirits of the dead. It seems that Leprachaun society was of a Liliputian nature – an ancient isolated and medieval Irish kingdom. The Leprachaun in Ireland, as an echo of woodland deities – the green attire symbolic in later times of the forest and countryside – who personified nature and its powers. Indeed, certain trees such as the oak, ash and thorn are sacred to the Celts (MacManus, 1959).

The idea that the Leprachaun has a Danish provenance has been traced to the Scandinavian duerger or dwarfs. These dwarfs, as with the leprechaun, also guard hidden treasure (Coker, 1870). Despite such conjectures the Leprachauns “…could not be purely Scandinavian origin because the tradition existed before Danish contact was very intense.” (Winberry, 1986).

7.  Leprachaunism

Leprachaunism or Donohue’s Syndrome is an extremely rare genetic disorder. The condition is due to the inheritance of  non-sex linked autosomal recessive genes. The cause of the disease is due to the lack of a fully developed functional receptor for insulin. The genetics were dentified in 1968 as an insulin receptor gene mutation named as 19p.13.2. The condition was eponymously identified (Donohue, 1948) and the term ‘Leprachaunism’ applied because those afflicted have elfin-like features and diminutive size. The term Leprachaunism has now been abandoned as a perjorative and insulting label. The genetic profile of Donohue’s Syndrome or ‘Leprachaunism’ is an autosomal recessive disorder on the short arm of chromosome 19. It is a mutation affecting insulin receptor function. This leads therefore to insulin resistance plus polycythaemia and profound hyperinsulinaemia.

With regard to signs and symptoms there occur the elfin or ‘leprechaun-like’ qualities. Characteristic features are: smallish head; protuberant and poorly developed low set ears; flared nostrils and flattened nasal ridge; the mouth is widely exaggerated with thick lips; the eyes are widely spaced (Donohue, 1948; Longo, 2002). In addition growth is stunted with failure to thrive coupled with being very thin, delayed bone growth and maturation. Affected individuals have an enlarged chest; exhibit gynomastia; and over-developed sex organs in the form of enlarged clitoris in females and enlarged penis in males. The enlarged sex organs result from increased oestrogen levels due to an overactive pancreas. Hypoglycaemia will be present as well as the ‘elephant skin’ or pachydermia.

Death is very early and may even be due to spontaneous abortion. Occasionally the victim may have longer than ten years. Demographically the condition occurs as 1 in 4 million live births. As will other recessive genetic conditions both parents have to carry the gene mutation for its expression. This implies that the parental relationship is consanguineous, mostly between cousins. However, the condition can be the result of the inheritance of two different mutant alleles – one from each parent (Elsas, 1985). By using the inaccurate description of ‘leprachaunism’ to describe the condition led to the fallacy that perhaps the Irish connection was linked to the folklore of the ‘changeling’. This cannot be the case because there are many instances of ‘changeling’ legends, myths and folktales over ages and many different cultures.

References and Sources Consulted

Ancient Laws of Ireland (Inroduction to).  (1865).  Vol 1. Dublin.

Briggs, K.  (1970).  The Fairies and the Realms of the Dead.  Folklore.  (81). 96.

Briggs, K.  (1976).  An Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogues, and other Supernatural Creatures.  London.

Croker, T. C. (1862); (1870).  Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland.  London.

Dinneen, P. S.  (1927).  Foclor Gaedhilge agus Bearla.  Irish Texts Society.

Donohue, W. I.  (1948).  Dysendocrinism.  J.Paediat.  32.  719-48.

Elsas, L. J.  (1985).  Leprachaunism: an inherited defect in a high-affinity insulin receptor.  Am.J.Hum.Genet.  37 (10.  73-88.

Frost, W.  (1900).  Fairies and Folk of Ireland.  New York.

Joyce, P. W.  (1871). The Origin and History of Irish Names of Place.  Dublin.

Kane, W. F.  (1917).  Notes on Irish Folklore.  Folklore. 28, 90-91.

Keightley, T.  (1870).  The Fairy Mythology.  London.

Laver, S.  (1831).  Legends and Stories of Ireland.  London.

Longo, N. et al.  (2002).  Genotype-phenotype correlation in inherited severe insulin resistance.  Hum.Mol.Genet.  11 (12).

McAnally, A.  (1888).  Irish Wonders.  Weatherstone Books, Boston, USA.

Macculloch, J. A.  (1932). Were Fairies an Earlier Race of Men?  Folklore.  43. 362-75.

Macdonald, J.  (1897).  Fawns and Fairies.  Transactions.  Gaelic Society of Inverness. 21. 265-89.

Mackay, W.  (1918).  Mythological Beings in Gaelic Folklore.  Transactions.  Gaelic Society of Inverness.  29. 235-38.

MacManus, D.  (1959).  Irish Earth Folk.  New York.

McKillop, J.  (1998).  Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.  OUP, Oxford.

Messenger, J. C.  (1969).  Iris Beag: Isle of Ireland.  New York.

O’Grady, S. H. ed.  (1970).  Silva Gadelica.  New York.

Rolleston, T. W.  (1994).  Celtic Myths and Legends.  Senate, London.

Squire, C.  (1910).  Celtic Myth and Legend.  London.

Squire, C.  (1996).  Mythology of the Celtic People.  Bracken Books, London.

Wilde, J.  (1888).  Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland.  Ward Downey, London.

Winberry, J. T.  (1976).  The Elusive Elf: Some Thoughts on the nature and Origin of the Irish Leprachaun.  Folklore.  87 (1). 63-75.

Yeats, W. B.  (1888).  Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry.  W. Scott, London.



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