As my family and I prepare to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on Sunday, our minds have wandered away from the traditional corned beef and green sweaters. Instead, a conversation with my brilliant daughter brought up a different topic of conversation — more of a curiosity, if you will.

Marla Hoffman

While we try to keep our “family holiday” steeped in less stereotyped, more historically relevant traditions, she and I couldn’t help but ask ourselves: What’s the deal with leprechauns?

I’ve seen imagery of the little green-suited tricksters my whole life, but I never really thought about where the leprechaun legends come from and why we still use their likeness in this (presumably) less superstitious modern age.

So, I started a deep dive on the internet, finding website after website with oodles of information on leprechauns. There were many varying tales, some of them wildly different.

Among the first Google entries were movies. IMDB.com had these offerings, among others: 1985’s “Legend,” 1992’s “Leprechaun,” Francis Ford Coppola’s 1968 classic “Finian’s Rainbow,” and, my personal favorite, “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” from 1959 — a fun one I watched as a little girl.

I found a compilation video on YouTube called “13 Absurd Scenes From the Leprechaun Movies.”

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World History Encyclopedia at worldhistory.org has a gigantic entry on leprechauns, and includes a YouTube video called “The origin of Leprechauns.” Wikipedia has its own entry on the mythic creatures, as does Britannica.com.

There are children’s videos with smiling, pale-faced, red-bearded, green suit and top hat-wearing little men who sing Irish ditties. Then there are the old, grisly, goblin-looking menaces that want to trick you, steal your money and probably maim you.

Bruce Walker of Scarborough claps to the beat of the bagpipes during St. Patrick’s Day revelry at O’Reilly’s Cure in Scarborough on March 17, 2023. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald file

Considering these conflicting images, let’s break it down.

For one, all the websites, videos and photos agree: leprechauns are NOT female. If you see one, it’s just another leprechaun trick.

Also, the description of a small old man with red hair, wearing a green suit and a green hat — with or without a red beard — is generally accepted. However, there are older descriptions that say they may also have white hair, sometimes wearing a red coat instead of green. Irish poet Yeats said the leprechaun traditionally wore red while the fairies wore green, according to historycooperative.org.

Most mythologies say leprechauns are skilled cobblers and are known for their love of gold, but they are secretive, often wily and magical.

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The word “leprechaun” has some roots related to the Celtic god Lugh. Other ancient legends say they arose from the water sprites of Celtic myths, first appearing in Irish literature in the book “Adventure of Fergus son of Leti,” from the 8th century, History Cooperative says.

Leprechauns are described as either goblin-like creatures or something like a fairy; in either case they are known to be guardians of hidden treasure, which explains why they are pictured with pots of gold in modern images.

Older traditions describe them as stern, foul-mouthed old men intent on testing the extent of human greediness.

In contrast, today’s leprechauns are depicted as cheerful souls, an interpretation that is not considered authentic to traditional Irish folklore, History Cooperative says. The site also says that the cheerful version enjoys practical jokes and making mischief — but not in the menacing way like the older version.

Looking at the leprechaun’s description — the ancient dark version or the modern cheery old man — why are we still so enamored with this Irish mascot? He sounds a bit like one of those high school friends that keep playing practical jokes that you hate, but he just keeps coming around. Or that one uncle that keeps lifting from purses during family get-togethers.

Maybe the leprechaun’s image is enduring because of its link to the ancient stories of our Celtic forbearers? Maybe it’s because the older stories of the grimacing goblin are perfect fodder for a good, old-fashioned scary movie? Or perhaps it’s because the sight of a cheery, red-haired man that likes to slide down rainbows simply makes you smile and think of delicious cereals from your youth.

Honestly, after all this research, I still don’t know what it is that keeps us attached to this symbol of Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day.

Regardless, just in case they so happen to be real, I’m going to hide my shoes in the closet tonight.

Marla Hoffman is the nighttime managing editor for the Sun Journal and can be reached at mhoffman@sunjournal.com.

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