The Irish-Roman-British Little Guy
OK, you’re thinking, he must be talking about the leprechaun. But I thought that the leprechaun was just plain ol’ Irish.
Well, not really. In the first place, the name is half Old Irish (lu, small) and half Latin (corp, body). Those Romans really got around.
You just want to make sure that you pronounce the word correctly, or a leprechaun may materialize and steal your shoes in retaliation (in Irish folklore, their profession is usually a shoemaker). Don’t be like those people who pronounce it “leper con,” which suggests someone you really don’t want to hang around with.
The leprechaun actually showed up pretty late in the game in Irish folklore.
Like the shamrock, the leprechaun became a derogatory stereotype of the Irish for the 19th century British, who viewed themselves as far superior to the rest of the planet in general and the Irish in particular. Thus, the leprechaun’s fondness for practical jokes became a symbol of the Irish’s supposed guile and dishonesty; his hoarding of gold became a symbol of their miserliness; his humble occupation became a symbol of the general worthlessness of the Irish.
The Irish themselves never really cottoned to the leprechaun; his ubiquitous nature in our popular culture stems from British influences and media stereotyping.
Of course, just about every culture in human history has its version of the mischievous, magical creature who can appear and vanish at will. From Western European elves to Plains Indian Coyote Tricksters, the theme is always the same:
- He’s a little guy who works by stealth and guile.
- He’s smarter than you. A lot smarter.
- He has a hidden stash, which you’ll never find no matter how hard you try.
He will occasionally get careless and you can capture him, in which case he’ll grant you a wish or wishes in exchange for his freedom. Good luck getting anything of actual value from him, though.
The leprechaun usually comes armed with the power to grant three wishes. Capture a leprechaun and tell him if he wants you to let him go, he’ll have to make you a millionaire. He’ll then hand you an Italian million-lira note. Use your second wish and tell him you want a million dollars. Fine; a locked chest magically appears in front of you. Exasperated, you use your third wish to demand the key to the chest. The key will break when you try to open the chest.
The Pot o’ Gold
The idea of the leprechaun holding the key to wealth, and the image of him having a pot of gold buried in the ground at the end of a rainbow, may have its origins in Roman times.
After the Romans abandoned the British Isles in the 5th century, they left behind a wealth of artifacts—including hoards of buried coins, which are still being discovered today. The average Roman didn’t have any way of preserving and protecting his wealth other than burying his coins on his property. People died, moved away, etc., leaving these stashes intact.
The leprechaun could show you where to dig to find these old coins. All you have to do is wait for a rainbow and then go to where the rainbow touches the ground and start digging. Of course, when you get there, you might find that the rainbow has moved…or disappeared…
The Green, or is it Red, Jacket?
You might be surprised to learn that prior to the 19th century, leprechauns were depicted in folklore as wearing red, not green. The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats helped to shift the image to a little guy with a red beard wearing a green jacket with seven buttons. This is the image we have in America today, down to and including Lucky Charms cereal and the statues in front of Fitzgerald’s casinos in Reno and Vegas (both defunct, sad to say). Specifically, the solitary fairies were supposed to wear green, while the “trooping fairies” wore red.
The Buckled Hat
An odd feature of the stereotypical leprechaun costume is the buckled hat. Such buckles were fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries but by the time the leprechaun image really got going, were very much out of fashion. This may have been a way of negatively (again) portraying the Irish as old-fashioned and out of touch, much as American popular culture depicts the Puritans as wearing odd, tall, buckled hats, which they rarely if ever actually owned or wore.
The Tradition Today
So feel free to wear something green and have a pint of Guinness, but you should look a bit askance at the green-coated, red-bearded, buckle-hatted leprechaun on the barstool next to you—he’s just a British-American stereotype. But keep an eye on your shoes anyway.
By Kevin M. Lewis