What Is a Leprechaun?

Leprechaun with a pot of gold

RyanJLane / Getty Images

A leprechaun is a mythological figure, a type of fairy originating from 8th century Irish folklore. Contemporary leprechauns are depicted as men, small in stature and wearing a green coat, a top hat, and buckled shoes. They are known to be solitary creatures, dedicating themselves to shoemaking. They are notoriously lucky, able to grant wishes and give away treasure, but they are also known to be mischievous creatures.

Key Takeaways

  • Leprechauns are a type of fairy originating from 8th century Irish folklore. 
  • A modern leprechaun is depicted as a small, red-bearded man, wearing a top hat, buckled shoes, and a green coat, though older impressions feature a red coat and pointed hat. 
  • Known to be solitary cobblers, leprechauns do not like being disturbed, and they often play tricks on anyone who stumbles upon them. 

Ancient cultures across the world, including in Ireland, Greece, Iceland, the Philippines, Hawai’i, Indonesia, and North American indigenous tribes, feature stories about little people, often of supernatural nature, known for luck and trickery. Leprechauns are the Irish rendering of these people, originating from tales of the Aos Sí, a group of mythical beings that are said to reside in a parallel universe, occasionally making contact with human beings with mixed results. 

What Is a Leprechaun?

Leprechauns are a type of fairy found in Irish folklore, most often recognized by their iconic pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. According to legend, leprechauns are solitary creatures that spend their time making and mending shoes. Occasionally, a human will come across a leprechaun, either on purpose or accidentally, and attempt to capture him. If he proves successful, the leprechaun will either grant three wishes or bestow a pot of treasure in exchange for his freedom. Leprechauns are clever, however, and they often distract their capturer long enough to escape, creating havoc before disappearing.

The first leprechauns were portrayed as short, elderly men that could be found in tree hollows and rabbit holes in rural places. A leprechaun would wear a red coat, as red was the symbolic color of fairies, with a pointed hat and a leather apron. He would often have glasses perched on his nose and a pipe in his mouth, though this depiction varied slightly between stories.

In 1825, the Irish historian Thomas Crofton Croker published a collection of Irish folktales describing the leprechaun as a bearded cobbler with buckles on his shoes and a tendency toward trickery, and this imagery has remained almost unchanged since then, though in the 20th century his costuming in popular culture changed from red to green.

According to folklore, the tell-tale sign that a leprechaun is nearby is the tapping sound of a hammer striking nails into leather, like a cobbler making shoes, accompanied by whimsical, often cheerful whistling.

History and Origins

Though they don’t appear in early Irish or Celtic mythology, leprechauns are considered to be members of a group of magical creatures called the Aos Sí, descendent from the mythical deities of Ireland, the Tuathe Dé Dannan. Also known as the Sidhe (pronounced sith), the Aos Sí are more contemporary fairies and supernatural mythical creatures, including leprechauns, changelings, and the Banshee, that were found in Irish mythology and folklore beginning around the 8th century.

Leprechauns first appeared in the written record in the medieval story, Echtra Fergus mac Léti (Adventure of Fergus, son of Léti) in which a man falls asleep on a beach and wakes to find himself being dragged into the sea by three leprechauns. This story derives from the 8th century idea of Lú Chorpain, meaning small body, or water fairies. Other sources indicate that the word “leprechaun” comes from the Irish “leath bhrógan,” meaning shoemaker, the profession of these Irish fairies.

Leprechauns in Popular Culture 

Leprechauns in the United States are most commonly associated with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. In recent years, families with young children have been crafting leprechaun traps, intended to capture the tricksters and find their pots of gold. More than 10% of Americans—about 32.3 million people—claim Irish heritage, so it is not surprising that the leprechaun is such a prolific figure in contemporary American culture, appearing as sports mascots, breakfast cereal icons, and movie characters throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. 

  • University of Notre Dame: In 1960, a leprechaun became the mascot for the Fighting Irish, replacing a series of Irish terriers. 
  • Boston Celtics: Lucky the Leprechaun has been the mascot of the Celtics since the team's formation in 1946, owing, in part, to the city’s large Irish population. 
  • Hornswoggle: In 2007, actor and WWE wrestler Mark Postl debuted as Hornswoggle the leprechaun.
  • Lucky Charms Breakfast Cereal: Lucky the Leprechaun was launched by General Mills in 1964. 
  • The Luck of the Irish: This Disney movie about an adolescent fated to transform into a leprechaun was released in 2001. 
  • Darby O’Hill and the Little People: This 1959 film about a man who accidentally slips into a world of little people was also created by Disney.

Donohue Syndrome 

Donohue syndrome is sometimes called leprechaunism, though the term is widely considered to be offensive and inappropriate. It is a genetic mutation that affects the function of insulin receptors during growth and development of the embryo. Infants with Donohue Syndrome are smaller during intrauterine growth and development, and those born with the disorder experience failure to thrive, or the inability to gain weight and develop at the anticipated rate. Notable physical characteristics of Donohue Syndrome include large eyes, wide noses, upturned nostrils, low-set ears, and thick lips.

The disease is extremely rare and most often fatal, though some people with Donohue syndrome are known to have lived for more than a decade.

Sources 

  • Croker, Thomas Crofton. Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. Murray (U. A.), 1825.
  • Donohue, W.L. et al. “Leprechaunism.” The Journal of Pediatrics vol. 45,5 (1954): 505-519. 
  • Elsas, L J et al. “Leprechaunism: an inherited defect in a high-affinity insulin receptor.” American journal of human genetics vol. 37,1 (1985): 73-88.
  • Joyce, P. W. A Social History of Ancient Ireland. Longmans, 1920.
  • Koch, John Thomas. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, 2006.
  • Negra, Diane. The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture. Duke University Press, 2006.
  • Wilde, Lady Francesca Speranza. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland: with Sketches of the Irish Past. Ticknor and Co., 1887.
  • Winberry, John J. “The Elusive Elf: Some Thoughts on the Nature and Origin of the Irish Leprechaun.” Folklore, vol. 87, no. 1, 1976, pp. 63–75.