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Celtic Mythology: Are Leprechauns Real?

Updated on January 4, 2013

The first museum to deeply present Celtic history, culture and tales of leprechauns (most famous little men in Irish mythology), rainbows and pots of gold is the National Leprechaun Museum in Dublin, Ireland. It will open its doors to the public in the heart of the city in March 2010.

A leprechaun (Irish: leipreachán) is a male fairy typical for Irish folklore and mythology.This creature usually takes the form of an old, very small man in a green coat who is always ready to get into trouble.

A leprechaun wearing green clothes is especially popular in the United States of America where this little fairy is used for commercial and many other purposes including the celebration of St. Patrick´s Day.


Prior to the 20th century, leprechauns, the most famous little men in Irish mythology wore red, not green clothes like today. The image actually depends on the part of Ireland where they appear. These creatures were an inspiration to many writers who presented different images and legends regarding their appearance and character. Up to the 20th century gnomes, elves and leprechauns were synonymous terms:

´´Voice of the Lepracaun singing shrill
As he merrily plies his trade?
He's a span
And a quarter in height.´´

´´A wrinkled, wizen'd and bearded Elf,
Spectacles stuck on his pointed nose,
Silver buckles to his hose,
Leather apron-shot in his lap´´

(The Lepracaun; or Fairy Shoemaker by William Allingham, Fairy and Folk tales of the Irish Peasantry, selected and edited by W.B. Yeats, 1888)

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The legend says leprechauns can pinpoint the tricky end of a rainbow and find a crock of gold there.The classical iconography presents them as old bearded men, very short, little elves who drink, smoke a pipe, make jokes, swear, have a distinct sexual instinct, enjoy doing trouble, excellent spokesmen, extremely rich.

Leprechauns are referred to as the ´´One-shoemakers´´ since they are generally seen working at a single shoe. ´´Withered, old, and solitary… most sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms, they are the great practical jokers among the good people´´ (Yeats, The Solitary Fairies, 1888).

A leprechaun is usually a solitary spirit who keeps his treasure hidden in different places and this great wealth comes from the "treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time" (Yeats, 1888). Those who manage to capture him and force him to reveal the secret place where the treasure is hidden are perplexed in the end because the little creature always lies about his hidden gold. Leprechauns are not easy to catch. It is said that a leprechaun cannot escape if one has eyes totally fixed on him, but one glance aside and he is gone, vanished into thin air.

´´The queer little Lepracaun;
Offer'd the box with a whimsical grace,-
Pouf! he flung the dust in my face,
And, while I sneezed,
Was gone!´´

(Yeats, 1888)

Leprechaun in the media

  • In 1959, he appears in Walt Disney´s Darby O'Gill and the Little People, where an old Irish man tries to outwit a leprechaun king (featuring young Sean Connery).
  • In the cartoon Droopy Leprechaun by Michael Lah
  • In horror films like Leprechaun by Mark Jones starring Jennifer Aniston and Warwick Davis (1992)
  • In fantasy films like A Very Unlucky Leprechaun by Brian Kelly
  • In one of the Simpsons episodes

Young Sean Connery sings in Walt Disney´s Darby O'Gill and the Little People

Pubblicity and logos

  • University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana uses leprechauns as their mascots,
  • basketball team Boston Celtics (NBA league) use them as logo,
  • rugby team Wagga Brothers (Australia) as their symbol,
  • symbol of Lucky Charms breakfast cereals,
  • the former guitar player of Deep Purple, Richie Blackmore often dressed himself as a leprechaun for promotional photo sessions and live concerts.

Wayne Andersons illustration
Wayne Andersons illustration

Politics and expressions

In Irish politics, leprechauns are usually used in jokes to describe irresponsible politicians and to describe certain aspects of Irish tourist industry. In 1963, Irish president John. A. Costello said:

´´For many years, we were afflicted with the miserable trivialities of our tourist advertising. Sometimes it descended to the lowest depths, to the caubeen and the shillelagh, not to speak of the leprechaun.´´

The term leprechaun language is a negative term used by the Unionists of Northern Ireland referring to Irish language.


The English word leprechaun appears for the first time in 1604 as the word lubrican, in the comedy Honest Whore by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker:

´´As for your Irish Lubrican, that spirit
Whom by preposterous charms thy lust has raised.´´

Other English alternatives are: lubrican, leprehaun, and lepreehawn while certain modern Irish books use the spelling lioprachán.

There are different theories concerning the etimology of the name:

  • one theory says the name derives from the word meaning ´´little spirit´´ in the modern Gaelic language. Collins English Dictionary accepts the etimology explaining that leprechaun derives from luchorpán meaning ´´half of the body´´ or ´´little body.´´
  • Oxford English Dictionary explains the name as a derivation from leath bhrógan, meaning ´´shoemaker´´ because these little elves are often described as Irish ´´fairy shoemakers.´´
  • one theory says the word derives from luch-chromain meaning ´´little game Lugh´´ (chief of the mythological Gaelic tribe called Tuatha Dé Danann, the fifth out of six pre-historic people who invaded Ireland before Gaels).

Did you learn something new regarding Irish culture when reading this hub?

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