Who is the Leprechaun?

St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated annually on March 17, the anniversary of his death in the fifth century. St. Patrick’s Day 2023 will take place on Friday, March 17. The Irish have observed this day as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. On St. Patrick’s Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat were waived and people would dance, drink and feast on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage.

Then what do Leprechauns have to do with St. Patrick’s Day? First let us ask who are we truly celebrating on St. Patrick’s Day and then we’ll answer all of your Leprechaun questions!

Who is St. Patrick?

Saint Patrick, who lived during the fifth century, is the patron saint of Ireland and its national apostle. Born in Roman Britain, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave at 16. He later escaped, but returned to Ireland and was credited with bringing Christianity to its people. In the centuries following Patrick’s death (believed to have been on March 17, 461), the mythology surrounding his life became ever more ingrained in the Irish culture: Perhaps the most well-known legend of St. Patrick is that he explained the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) using the three leaves of a native Irish clover, the shamrock.

What do Leprechauns have to do with St. Patrick’s Day?

The Leprechaun is also associated with St. Patrick’s Day, which brings up the question: Who is the Leprechaun? Though famously short in stature, leprechauns have landed a big role in Irish folklore. These “wee folk” have captured imaginations for centuries, enchanting generation after generation with green get-ups and promises o’ gold. Though the leprechaun is a staple of pop culture in the Emerald Isle and beyond, its origins are a bit more mysterious. Fortunately, if you’ve ever wished you knew more about these little sprites, you’re in luck! Here, we take a look at the history of the legendary figure.

What is a Leprechaun?

Leprechauns (also leprechauns or leprechauns) are figures in Irish folklore who guard hidden treasure. Regarded as small and incredibly agile male fairies or goblins, they most often guard a pot of gold. Leprechauns live solitary lives and can be a source of mischief for the unwary. Leprechauns are infamous for being extremely difficult to catch or trap.

Even if a leprechaun is caught, the captor must keep them always within sight or they will not give away the location of their treasure, usually a crock of gold coins. Leprechauns share many characteristics with more ancient creatures from Irish-Celtic and wider European mythology, but since the 19th century CE, they have risen to the dominant position of being the most recognisable symbol of Irish folklore.

Leprechauns from the Past…

While traces of the leprechaun legend date back to the 8th century, the character as we know it today is likely a conflation of two figures from Irish mythology: the luchorpán and the clúrachán. Over the centuries, elements associated with each of these enchanting creatures have mixed and mingled to conjure up the concept of the leprechaun.

The Luchorpan

The word “leprechaun” likely derives from the Old Irish (the language spoken in Ireland between 600 and 900) luchorpán, a compound word whose roots,  and corp, mean “small” and “body,” respectively.

The earliest recorded use of this term is found in The Death of Fergus mac Leiti, an 8th-century story about tiny water spirits—the Luchorpán—who tricks a king into giving up his throne after attempting to drag him into the sea and granting him three wishes.

The Clurachan

A clúrachán is a solitary, household fairy. Legend has it that the clúrachán haunts wine cellars—a move motivated by the small sprite’s love of drinking—and, like the leprechaun, revels in tomfoolery and trickery. They traditionally dress in green, which is likely where the leprechaun’s signature color scheme came from. In fact, until the 20th century, leprechauns were customarily clad in red!

“But he is 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,” Samuel Lover wrote in Legends and Stories of Ireland, an anthology published in 1831.

Over the last couple of centuries, however, the clúrachán‘s association with the color green has trickled into tales of the leprechaun, eventually becoming one of the sprite’s most defining features.

The Modern Leprechaun

The typical modern representation of a leprechaun as a little man sitting on a toadstool with a red beard and green hat comes from a mix of elements seen in wider European folklore and is not part of the traditional Irish leprechaun character.

Most tales involving a leprechaun follow a familiar pattern. A human spies one busy repairing some shoes and demands to know where his little pot of gold (sometimes called a crock of gold after the earthenware pot) or gold coins are. All the human has to do is keep his eye always on the leprechaun and he will be given the gold. There lies the problem, though. For leprechauns are nimble despite their age and prone to mischievous tricks. The leprechaun will try any means to distract his captor, but favorite techniques include playing on humanity’s greed and their gullibility. The wily leprechaun is so successful in hanging on to his gold that the human who tried to gain it, in the end, usually only blames themselves for their own stupidity in not acquiring the pot of gold.

Given the holiday’s heavily religious roots, why is the leprechaun associated with St. Patrick’s Day? In popular culture, St. Patrick’s Day is less of a liturgical holy day and more of a celebration of all things Irish. This includes the evergreen leprechaun, who magically captures both the heritage and hue of the historic Emerald Isle.

Stitch a Little Luck this St. Patrick’s Day

We found some Leprechauns living in the woods outside the studio of Liberty Stitching Company! Those mischievous creatures broke into our studio last night and took a Shamrock Necklace Embroidery Kit, which we found in their home. Before we could get upset, they poked their heads out, apologized and then told us how much they loved stitching this design! 

They loved our product so much that they offered to work in our store for the holiday in exchange for taking a kit. We all realized with Easter being so soon after St. Patrick’s Day that the extra help would be needed and they have been working around the clock filling orders and stitching in their free time! 

Stay tuned for some funny tales of working alongside the Leprechauns this season and stitch a little luck into your St. Patrick’s Day this year with an embroidery kit from our Lucky and Blessed St. Patrick’s Day Collection! Leprechaun approved!

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Sources

Leprechaun-World History Encyclopedia, https://www.worldhistory.org/Leprechaun/, obtained March 3, 2024.

History of St. Patrick’s Day, https://www.history.com/topics/st-patricks-day/history-of-st-patricks-day, obtained March 3, 2024.

A “Wee” History of the Leprechaun, a Legendary Character from Irish Folklore, https://mymodernmet.com/what-is-a-leprechaun/, obtained March 3, 2024.  

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