In America, the bearded sprites known as leprechauns have become synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day and Irish culture. Here are some lucky facts about Ireland’s mythical beings.
1. Leprechauns are fairies.
Although they might not match your initial idea of what a fairy is, leprechauns are considered a part of the family. Like other fairies, they’re small in size and prone to mischief. The miniature men are said to be descendants of Tuatha Dé Danann, a group of magical beings that served under the Gaelic goddess Danu. According to legend, this mythical group lived in Ireland long before humans inhabited the land.
2. There aren’t any female leprechauns.
As a way of explaining why there is no record of female leprechauns (and therefore no way to procreate in the traditional sense), some sources claim leprechauns are the unwanted children of the fairy community. As a result, leprechauns are described as grouchy, untrusting, and solitary creatures.
3. There’s a leprechaun colony in Portland, Oregon.
After noticing a small circular hole in concrete where a light pole was meant to be, a journalist named Dick Fagan took it upon himself to make use of it. After adding flowers and a tiny sign that proclaimed it the “world’s smallest park,” Fagan began to write stories about the spot in a newspaper column. He detailed the adventures of a small leprechaun colony, led by a leader that only the journalist could see. The modest garden, called Mill Ends Park, became an official city park on St. Patrick’s Day in 1976. Over the years, contributors have added miniature additions like a swimming pool complete with a diving board.
4. Leprechaun means “small body.”
Leprechaun is believed to be a variation of the Middle Irish word, lūchorpān—lū means small and corp means body.
5. Sometimes, leprechauns are red.
Although the little Irishmen are now synonymous with the color green, they weren’t always. Early accounts of leprechauns describe them as wearing red and sporting a variety of hats, often three-cornered.
6. Leprechauns have a troublesome cousin called the clurichaun.
Also sporting red is the rambunctious clurichaun, a mythical creature that shares many characteristics with the leprechaun. These beings are always described as drunk and surly. They are often seen in stories riding animals at night, or clearing out entire wine cellars. Some accounts explain these troublemakers as the night-form of leprechauns; after a hard day’s work, the bearded fairies get so tipsy they become an entirely different species. Other stories describe them as a close relative to the leprechaun.
7. Leprechauns are the bankers and cobblers of the fairy world.
Leprechauns are known for their money, and there’s apparently a lot of it in the cobbling business. Since they spend most of their time alone, the tiny green men pour all their energy into crafting shoes. They’re said to always have a hammer and shoe in hand. According to legend, you can hear them coming by the telltale tapping sound they make.
While some stories attribute the leprechauns’ wealth to the fine shoes they make, others say they protect the treasure of the entire fairy world. One tale says leprechauns act like bankers to make sure the frivolous fairies don’t spend all their gems at once.
8. Leprechauns are sneaky.
Wherever there are leprechauns, there are stories of people trying to steal their gold. The rule is, if you’re lucky enough to catch a leprechaun, you can never take your eyes off him or he’ll disappear. In one tale, a man managed to catch a leprechaun and forced the fairy to divulge the secret location of his treasure. The leprechaun reluctantly pointed to a tree. Delighted, the man tied a red bandana around the branch and ran home to get a shovel. When he returned, he was dismayed to find all the trees were sporting the same red scarf.
9. But leprechauns can be generous if you’re kind to them.
Constantly being chased for one’s gold—or cereal— can take a toll on any fairy’s demeanor. As a result, leprechauns are distrustful and secretive. This attitude doesn’t mean they won’t loosen the purse strings if touched by a bit of kindness. One legend mentions a down-on-his-luck nobleman who offered a leprechaun a ride on his horse. In return, the man returned to his crumbling castle to find it filled to the ceiling with gold.
10. Someone claims to have found the remains of an actual leprechaun.
In 1989, a local businessman in Carlingford, Ireland, claimed to have found evidence of a real leprechaun on a mountain called Slieve Foye. He said that after hearing a scream near the wishing well, he found bones, a tiny suit, and gold coins near scorched earth. The evidence is now displayed behind a glass case for visitors to come see.
As a result, a new tradition was born: During an annual leprechaun hunt, 100 ceramic leprechauns are hidden on the mountain. Tourists come every year to try to hunt down the little green statues. Hunters need to buy a 6€ “hunter’s license” beforehand. In 2019—the 30th anniversary of the leprechaun bones’ discovery and the 10th anniversary of their official European Union recognition—fortune-seekers abandoned their mountain search and instead scoured the town for hidden leprechaun pots, one of which contained a real bar of gold valued at €1200.
11. Leprechauns are protected under European law.
Apparently, there are 236 leprechauns that still live in the caverns of Slieve Foye. In 2009, the EU granted heritage status to the remaining wee people; they now have their own protected sanctuary nestled in the mountain. The directive also protects the animals and flora in the area to help keep the biodiversity of the land safe.
12. Some accounts say leprechauns can live underwater.
The earliest known folktale to feature a leprechaun comes from the Middle Ages. In it, Fergus mac Léti, the King of Ulster, falls asleep by the beach. He awakens to find three lúchorpáin (“little bodies”) attempting to drag him into their undersea lair. The king captures them, but releases them after he is promised three wishes. This story suggests the mythical men are sea-dwellers, but modern takes on the myth do not often include this lifestyle detail.
13. Leprechauns might have a divine heritage.
Some sources say leprechauns are derivatives of the Irish deity Lugh, god of the Sun and of arts and crafts. After the rise of Christianity, Lugh’s importance was diminished, and he was demoted to a shoe-making folklore character known as Lugh Chromain.
14. You can pretend to be a leprechaun for a good cause.
In March, there are marathons all over the country that encourage the participants to dress like leprechauns. The festive runners help raise money for charity while getting in the St. Patrick’s Day spirit.
15. You can make your own leprechaun trap.
Making a leprechaun trap is a great activity to share with your children this St. Patrick’s Day. All you need to get started is something shiny to lure the little men. The traps can be simple as a shoebox, or elaborate as your family can imagine. Although no one has caught anything yet—that we know of—it doesn’t hurt to try!