When I first started telling people about my book, I expected to receive some flack about writing a romance novel. What surprised me was that people had the most trouble with the leprechaun. Most of my beta readers were fine with the idea once I explained “no, my hero isn’t short.” But for some, I would invariably have to explain, “no, my hero isn’t homicidal.”
But leprechauns have had many images. The tales were first written down in the late 1000s by the literati of the day, church monks. While originally thought to be true to the oral tradition, current scholars think they’re more likely morality tales based on classic Greek and Roman literature, the standard references of the Middle Ages. These leprechauns are malevolent spirits who played tricks on foolish, greedy men.
The earlier oral tradition come from the Tuatha De Danann, legendary invaders of Ireland sometime between 3,500 and 1,800 BC. One, a warrior named Lugh, defeated a Cyclops with magic and a mighty spear. The word leprechaun is sometimes thought to come from ‘son of Lugh,’ or one of these warriors.
Lugh is the name of a Celtic god of France, Scotland, Wales, Netherlands, and Spain, possibly derived from the Roman god Mercury. He is associated with money, shoes, and war. Considering how important good shoes were to commerce and war before motorized transport, it’s easy to see how the idea of leprechauns grew from foot soldier to shoemaker.
When the Tuatha De Danann was finally defeated, they were given land in Ireland, but underground. They disappeared with all their magic and became the fairies, the mysterious folk you didn’t mention by name. This is sometimes thought to be the beginning of leprechauns as “the hidden people” or “the little people.”
By the time of the Irish Literary Revival of the early 1900s, the leprechaun was a little man dressed in green, smoking a pipe, obsessing over gold. In the US, this image appeared in Disney’s 1959 film, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and in the 1947 Broadway play, Finian’s Rainbow. Lucky Charms breakfast cereal adopted this image for advertising in the early 1960s.
So are leprechauns evil spirits, great warriors, shoemakers, or wee men? Or are they just putting one over on us? Classic trickster figures break the rules to humble the boastful. Maybe my beta readers were right to be nervous?