Historical Happenings for April 2016

Leprechaun – Legend or History

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian


Leprechaun Engraving (circa 1900)

Leprechaun Engraving (circa 1900)

Every year around March 17 we get the question: are there really such things as Leprechauns and I thought I’d put the record straight. The truth lies in Ireland’s ancient manuscripts describing her early settlers and since many have been partially corroborated by archeological evidence, we should consider the possible accuracy of the others. Among the early settlers of Ireland, lines of succession and titles depended on births, deaths and battles. Such information had to be preserved and without an alphabet it was committed to memory by those with a capacity for learning. Men were specially trained for that purpose and a learned class called Bards emerged. They were the official historians whose duty it was to retain this information for retelling when called upon. Historian Liam dePaor wrote that, They knew in detail the history of the making of Ireland. Their knowledge was full of colorful and minute detail. Great care was taken to insure the accuracy of these histories by bestowing blessings on those who would memorize and retell them with fidelity, in this form, and not put any other form to it. The feats of memory of these unlettered folk amaze those of us who rely on the printed word.  Historian Alwyn Rees wrote that a crofter-fisherman of Barra maintained that in his youth he went to listen to the same storyteller almost every winter’s night for 15 years and that he hardly ever heard the same story twice.

Told and retold, down through the ages in the form of epic tales and poems, the adventures were recorded for posterity by Irish Christian monks using the Roman alphabet. Although they altered the tales when they contradicted Church teaching, they were otherwise accurate. The monks who performed this work were recruited from the native Irish and were well aware of their obligation to preserve their histories accurately. Consequently, despite the biblical alterations, the scribes did not totally replace their own history and the various settlements described in the ancient manuscripts did take place and the seed of history lies therein. The Historian’s History of the World, volume 21, records that the pedigrees now began to be committed to writing, and, as they could for the first time be compared with one another, a wide field was open to the inventive faculties of the scribes. The result has been the construction of a most extraordinary legendary history which acquired a completeness, fullness, and certain degree of consistency which is wonderful.

The Lebor Gabala Eireann (the Book of the Taking of Ireland) is a collection of Ireland’s most ancient tales and describes her early settlers. Comparing this data with evidence by archeologists and recognized historians, the early history of Ireland emerges as The Historian’s History also noted that, with all their drawbacks, the Irish ethnic legends, when stripped of their elaborate details and biblical and classical loans, express the broad facts of the peopling of Ireland, and are in accordance with the results of archeological investigation. The earliest settlers were the Nemedians who eventually fled the island in the face of marauding pirates. After a few years, their descendants made their way back to Ireland in two separate groups – the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Danann. The Fir Bolg are described in the Book of Invasions as a short dark people of Mediterranean stock. They began tunnel mining operations which ultimately led to the manufacture of copper and gold implements and ornaments. Historian Estyn Evans recorded that in nearly every case where a copper deposit has been worked in more recent times, the miners have come across evidence of prehistoric mining. These prehistoric mines reveal that they were indeed excavated by people less than five feet tall which is not that hard to believe when one looks at the tombs they built; the entrance to 5,000-year old Newgrange was built for short men.  In addition, Historian Eleanor Hull wrote that the latest research in ethnology suggests that the earliest race of which remains have been found in Ireland was a short, dark, and long-headed people, correlated with the Mediterranean European stock, long before the arrival of the conquering race of tall, fair-haired people, who became dominant. Neolithic graves in France contained skeletal remains four feet tall and, according to P. Kermode and W. Herdman Scot. D.sc., F.r.s. in a lecture on Manx Antiquities, neolithic man in Britain, calculating from their bones, was no more than 5 ft. tall.  These then are the `short, dark, people of Mediterranean stock’ described in the ancient annals as the Fir Bolg who peopled the country until the arrival of their distant cousins – the Tuatha De Danann.

The De Danann had developed into a society so advanced in skills and crafts that the Fir Bolg, who were indentured by them, considered them god-like and the industrial potential of the island developed with the introduction of bronze.  The country entered a Golden Age (1750 – 1400 BC) and became the focus of Atlantic trade although still plagued by raiding pirates. The last settlers were the Milesians, who conquered the earlier settlers and banished them to a remote section of the country. The ancient manuscripts refer to the division as upper and lower parts, probably meaning north and south. Later generations to whom were handed down the tales of the wonderful people their ancestors had conquered, lifted them into a mystic realm and the great De Danann heroes became Gods and Goddesses immortalized in exciting folklore. The Milesian invaders were physically taller than the Fir Bolg and De Danann and their heroes eventually assumed the role of giants – after all, mortal men could not have dispossessed gods.  And the stories grew into legends which have come down through the generations describing the small, mysterious Fir Bolg, and the God-like Tuatha De Danann, whose magical powers were matched only by the strength and valor of the Milesian giants.

Putting folklore aside isn’t it possible that the Milesians and the raiding pirates, also larger in size, sought the gold being mined by these short, dark people, and that the Fir Bolg fled to the safety of their mine tunnels where the big guys couldn’t follow them. Would the raiders have carried the tale of a race of little people who lived under the ground protecting their pots of gold?  Add to that the fact that ancient tales told of the division of Ireland as the upper and lower parts and later generations interpreted that as above and below ground since after the arrival of the Milesians, couldn’t the vanquished people have hidden in caves far from Milesian tribal centers and were only occasionally seen?  Today, we recognize that as the basis of the legend of the Leprechaun, but it is an excellent argument for the theory that behind every legend is a germ of historical fact, though I would definitely discount the green top hat and tails!  Some say the name leprechaun comes from the old Irish leath bhrogan (shoemaker), but it could also derive from the old Irish luacharma’n which translates pygmy. As for the question, are there any left; well, there are plenty of caves in Ireland.  It is highly unlikely, but who knows?  At any rate, these stories provide Irish literature with enchanting tales of a magical fairy people and majestic sagas of a race of heroic giants. But, they also contain the key to Ireland’s past, for although they have been flavored through the centuries, most of these tales or legends may be based on fact!  The wonderful part is not that we have such fascinating stories, but that once upon a time, they might have really been true!