By Jazlyn Moock
With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, hundreds of thousands of Americans have started to stock up on shamrocks, green beer, corned beef, and above all their snazziest leprechaun get-ups! However, did you know these cute, happy-go-lucky little fellas at the end of the rainbow so ingrained in American celebrations could not be further from the truth of traditional Irish lore? In reality, these mystical creatures—that some believe still exist under the hilly landscape of Ireland—are far from happy, far from lucky, and far from your favorite marshmallow cereal box.
So what is the real story of the leprechaun? In order to answer this question, we have to go all the way to the beginning.
The year was 1897 BC. The place was Tir Na Nog, also known as “The Land of the Ever Young.” Little known to that of the human realm exists this paradise of everlasting beauty, abundance, youth, health, and utter joy. To the brim with blossoming fruit trees, honey, magical horses, and enchanting bird songs, where time doesn’t exist and no one grows old, exists the “Celtic Otherworld,” home for the Tuatha De Danann, the gods of Ireland. Not unlike the average Irish human today, the Danann enjoy the simplicities of life such as poetry, music, jokes, and feasts.
As the legend goes, the nature of Ireland possesses a spirit, a presence of its own. The mountains, rocks, trees, rivers, the vast sea, all alive beings with a connection to this supernatural world of gods. Their energy and spirit, therefore, serve as a conductor for transportation from this land as we know it and the Otherworld, as a boundary, as a secret passage. For some unknown reason, for some unknown purpose, the Tuatha de Danann decided to cross this boundary. They packed all of their most advanced technologies, boarded their ships, and sailed straight through a river of salmon into Ireland.
The native farming villages of Ireland were baffled, mystified by these strange people. According to their accounts of the Danaans’ arrival, dark clouds foamed and permeated the sky, causing a shadow over the sun lasting three days. Their ships flew in, filled with pale red-haired, green-eyed people—a sharp contrast to the native people of Ireland all born with jet-black hair, dark skin, and dark eyes.
As one local splendidly stated of the intruders, “The truth is not known, beneath the sky of stars, whether they were of heaven or earth or hell.”
The pastoral inhabitants of the island, called the Firbolgs, without a doubt were amazed by the immense knowledge of the more technologically advanced Dananns, remarking these new colonizers as “supernatural magicians.” The Tuatha de Danann ruled over Ireland for 197 years, until the Milesians arrived. After spending hundreds of years traveling the earth, the Milesian people, known today as the Celts, finally decided to claim Ireland as their permanent home that they believed was a god-given right to their race. As the final people group to settle on the island, they are now the ancestors of the present-day Irish.
The reign of the Danann came to an end in just two battles with the Milesians, due to their far superior military might. The two sides came to an agreement that each would each rule half of Ireland, however, the Milesians tricked the Danann, taking all of Ireland that lays above ground and leaving the Danann the other half of the island that lies below ground.
So, under the rolling hills of Ireland, concealing themselves with their unequivocal understanding of nature, the Tuatha de Danann continued their civilization and eternal existence of abundance and youth. However, today they take on a different name; today they are known as the fairy folk.
Do not be mistaken, fairies to the Irish were not seen as cute, tiny, winged Tinkerbells; they are just as large and dangerous as any human above ground, being known to delight you one day and kill you the next. If not treated with respect, they have been known to abduct babies, cause crop failures, spoil the milk of entire villages, and sicken farm animals. They also commit these curses against humans just for pure entertainment, for instance, they are said to replace a household’s alcohol with water and drink it all for themselves.
So what do fairies have to do with leprechauns? Everything! In fact, leprechauns are actually fairies or descendants of the Tuatha de Danann. The name leprechaun comes from the Irish term ‘leath brogan’ which means shoemaker. Hence, these creatures’ purpose in the fairy world is to simply make their shoes, which is quite the lucrative business in their society, believe it or not, since fairies always are in need of new shoes from constantly dancing, finding their joy in movement.
Although, the life of a leprechaun is a lonely one since they are believed to be the unwanted children of fairies that have been abandoned by the rest of the community. This can serve as an explanation for why they are notoriously grouchy, ill-tempered, and untrusting of others. And, while it seems like they have pots and pots of gold all to themselves, the treasure actually belongs to the other fairies, who use the leprechauns as bankers of sorts to guard the treasure of the entire fairy world.
While these creatures may seem as real as the magical bearded, jolly man in a red suit that slips down your chimney every year, the belief in the fairy folk has been widespread throughout Ireland and is ingrained in the cultures and livelihoods of the people. For hundreds of years, the Irish deeply feared and admired their fairy neighbors, appeasing them with milk and berries and protecting their suspected homes and sacred “forts.”
Some still believe there are hundreds of fairies and leprechauns living in the Irish caverns of Slieve Foye. Ten years ago, the European Union even granted heritage status to the fairy populations, now having their own protected sanctuary nestled in the mountain.
So remember this March 17th to pay your respects to the Tuatha de Danann and their mischievous shoemaker grandchildren, or else they may just replace your green beer with water and spoil that corned beef.