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What is a Leprechaun?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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A leprechaun (lep' rah kahn) is a mythical Irish elf or faerie that occupies a realm which lies somewhere between the physical and spirit world. There are no female leprechauns noted in folklore, begging an obvious question. Then again, faeries don't follow the same rules as humankind. The leprechaun is said to love his pipe, his drink and his solitude, but on occasion he can become social, and when this happens he loves to dance and engage in antics.

A leprechaun is a small man less than 24 inches (610 mm) in height with thick, wiry red hair that is mostly hidden under a three-cornered hat. He has pointed ears, large bushy sideburns or a full curly beard, sparkling green eyes, and fair skin with rosy cheeks and nose. His clothes are mostly green but might include a leather work apron. All leprechauns wear shiny black leather shoes with silver buckles, as they are excellent cobblers, a reputation and trade in which they take great pride. It is said they make shoes for many sprites in the faerie world.

Through legends surrounding the leprechaun, the image of a mischievous, shrewd and quick-witted little elf emerges. It is said that when the Danes plundered Ireland, they left their gold with leprechauns to guard. Hence, if you catch a leprechaun he may lead you to his stash of gold hidden beneath a rainbow. But first he will try to bribe you. The leprechaun carries two leather pouches: one holds a silver coin, and the other a gold one. The silver coin magically returns to his pouch every time it is spent. However, he'll offer the gold coin that will turn to ash or disappear completely once he is safely away. A captured leprechaun might even offer his captor the granting of three wishes, but excellent trickery will make the wishes as useful as the gold coin.

Leprechauns believe men of our world to be excessively greedy and careless, and will avoid being caught. If cornered, holding a leprechaun's gaze will keep him from disappearing. But beware: he will use every trick to get you to look away, and when you look back, he will be gone.

A close cousin of the leprechaun is the clurichaun, said to be a surlier version of the leprechaun. Clurichauns are fonder still of drink and often wear red and white to distinguish themselves from leprechauns.

The word leprechaun seems to be taken from two sources, according to historians. The Irish Gaelic luprachan, or "half-bodied," referring to their partial occupation of the physical world; and leath bhrogan, which means "shoemaker."

Aside from cobbling, leprechauns are tied to the idea of luck, shamrocks, and four-leaf clovers. Their miserly wealth, good fortune, and antics make leprechauns an enduring Irish legend known the world over.

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Discussion Comments
By anon983143 — On Dec 27, 2014

The stereotype Irish rubbish is getting dim now. Do you really think that your ''opinion'' has any thing to do with leath bhrogán?

And I thought this would have been an easy one for anyone with even half a brain to work out.

Yeah sure, Irish cobblers were small green magical people who lived in crocks of gold underneath rainbows.

By sunshine31 — On Mar 15, 2011

@Sevenseas – I didn’t know that. I wanted to say that every year around St. Patrick’s Day my son always creates a trap in order to catch a leprechaun.

My son creates these elaborate traps and decorates it with stickers and all kinds of green string. He also makes a trail of gold coins all over the house and the night before St. Patrick’s Day we have to pick up all the coins so it looks like a leprechaun took them. It is so funny.

By sevenseas — On Mar 22, 2008

Leprechaun, from old Irish, means "small body".

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