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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

A leprechaun is a little male sprite in Irish folklore, traditionally dressed in green or red. Tales of leprechauns go back thousands of years. According to writings in the early Christian period describing the various legendary groups who settled in Ireland in earlier times, leprechauns are descended from the fifth wave of migrants, the Tuatha De Danann people, who ruled Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries BCE.

This group is sometimes portrayed as godly beings and at other times as human. They supposedly came to Ireland by ship before defeating the resident Fir Bolg people in the First Battle of Mag Tuired. Nuanda, king of the Tuatha De Danann, lost an arm in the conflict. A physician gave him a silver prosthesis. After some magic was cast, flesh and skin grew over the new arm. In a second battle, they defeated the Fomorian people. Nuanda died in the fighting and Lugh established himself as the new king.

Later the Tuatha De Danann were threatened by the Milesians, a Celtic group, the ancestors of the people who live in Ireland today. Fearing defeat, Tuatha De Danann leaders were able to stall the invaders. The local group whipped up some magic and tried to blow the unwanted visitors away with a fierce storm. But the Milesians created some of their own magic, calming the seas with a poem. They came ashore and beat the Tuatha De Danann.

The Milesians decided that they would live above ground and the surviving Tuatha De Danann would have to live below it. The Tuatha De Danann dug magical holes and disappeared underground where they have lived ever since. Fearful of humans, the little creatures would emerge at night, and came to be called leprechauns.

The first mention of leprechauns in surviving literature is in the medieval work, ‘Echtra Fergus mac Leti’, or the ‘Adventure of Fergus, son of Leti’, set in the second century BCE. In this work, mac Leti was king of the Uliad people in the Ulster region. He had been providing refuge for Eochu Belbuide, one of three legendary figures battling one another to be king of the Feni people.

At last Eochu returned to his people with an offer of peace but was killed by them. To avenge the death, Fergus and his army made various demands of these people, including gold, silver and land, which they gave him. Peace was agreed and he returned to his own land with his maid Ogma and chariot driver Muena. They reached the coast, where they fell asleep. At this point, a number of sprites took Fergus’s sword, before lifting him out of the chariot and carrying him to the water’s edge.

He awoke when he felt the sea around his feet, grabbed three of the leprechauns, and asked for three wishes. One wish was to swim long distances underwater. They granted his wish, except in Loch Rudraige within Fergus’s land. Later he jumped into this loch and saw a sea monster, or muirdris, under the water. His face became forever distorted with fright.

Fergus could no longer be king, but his people decided to look after him anyway. For seven years, they washed his hair lying down so he couldn’t see himself in the water’s reflection. He struck out at his maid one day as she was taking too long to clean his hair. She then goaded him and he cut her fatally with his sword. He returned to the loch and fought the muirdris all day and night, killing it. He held its severed head aloft as he came out of the bay, but he had exhausted himself and collapsed and died. Fergus should have taken notice of the leprechauns!

Over the centuries, the leprechaun legend grew and various stories emerged about these little fairies. Leprechauns have always been associated with wealth. In ancient times, they looked after treasure left behind by Danish invaders and are believed to have pots of gold at the end of rainbows. They learned to make shoes and developed a liking for practical jokes. Solitary by nature, leprechauns will grant anyone who catches them three wishes, but they are very elusive and will usually vanish before any human has time to find the treasure.