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. The manuscripts contain so much detail that it is hard to believe they are historically accurate. However, since they are the basis of many traditions, they are worth studying. Further, many have been partially corroborated by archeological evidence, so shouldn’t we at least consider the possible accuracy of the others.
Among the early settlers of Ireland, lines of succession and titles were established and altered by births, deaths, battles, and other significant events. Such information had to be preserved and, in the absence of a convenient alphabet, it was committed to memory by those who demonstrated a great capacity for learning. In time, men were specially trained for that purpose. Gradually, a learned class called Bards emerged; they were the official historians whose duty it was to put significant events in the form of a verse or story and retain this information for retelling whenever called upon to do so. It has been written that, They knew in detail the history of the making of Ireland; who felled the first tree and who cleared the first plain and who ploughed the first furrow. Their knowledge was full of colorful and minute detail.1 Great care was taken to insure the accuracy of these histories by bestowing blessings on those who would faithfully memorize and retell the tales 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. 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.2
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. Of course, the tales were flavored by the scribes who insured that the tales did not contradict the teachings of the Church; but otherwise they were accurate. 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.3 And the effort was not in vain, since much of the preserved information provides a glimpse of history, for it must be remembered that these were also the scribe’s own traditions. 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, in spite of the addition of biblical references, the more one studies the genealogies, the more evident it becomes that the scribes did not totally replace their own history. For this reason, we believe that the various invasions of Ireland described in her ancient manuscripts actually did take place as written and the seed of history lies therein.
The Lebor Gabala Eireann (literally the Book of the Taking of Ireland) is a collection of Ireland’s most ancient tales and includes actual descriptions of the early settlers of Ireland. If we examine these stories in the light of evidence gathered by archeologists and recognized historians, the early history of Ireland emerges. It has been 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.4
The stories describe the settling of Ireland as a series of invasions. One of the earliest settlers, in whom we are interested, were the Nemedians. Theirs was a relatively short stay for they eventually fled the island in the face of marauding pirates. After a lengthy exile, the descendants of the Nemedians made their way back to Ireland in two separate groups – the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Danann. The Fir Bolg were first of these to arrive and they 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. In nearly every case where a copper deposit has been worked in more recent times, the miners have come across evidence of prehistoric mining.5 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 considers the existence of Pygmies. Further, one has only to look at the tombs they built; the entrance to 5,000-year old Newgrange was built for short men. In addition, 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.6 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 and who prospered as masters of the country until the arrival of their distant cousins – the Tuatha De Danann.
The De Danann, also descended from the Nemedians, had developed into a technically advanced society during their exile. So advanced were they in the crafts that the Fir Bolg, whom they would replace as masters of Ireland, considered them to be possessed of supernatural powers. The stories of the De Danann conquest and their subsequent rule are full of references to the technology that the Fir Bolg couldn’t explain and saw as superhuman abilities due to the magic of the De Danann Druids. The Fir Bolg were indentured by the De Danann and the industrial potential of the island developed to its fullest with the introduction of bronze. The country entered a Golden Age (1750 – 1400 BC), and became the focus of Atlantic trade.
The last great Celtic movement which spread across early Europe brought the final pre-Christian settlers to Ireland. Described in the ancient Irish manuscripts as the Milesians, the Celts conquered the Tuatha De Danann and banished the survivors 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 of Milesians, 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 heros 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, before the Milesians came, raiding pirates – also larger in size – came seeking 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 returned to their home land with tales 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 we can see later generations interpreting that as above and below ground. After the arrival of the Milesians, wasn’t there a vanquished people who may have dwelt hidden in caves far from Milesian tribal centers and were only occasionally seen? Today, we recognize that as the legend of the Leprechaun, but it is an excellent argument for the theory that behind every legend is a germ of historical fact, although 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; there are plenty of caves in Ireland. It is highly unlikely, but who knows?
At any rate, these and other stories provide Irish literature with enchanting tales of a magical fairy people, majestic sagas of a race of heroic giants, and some of the loveliest poetry in all the world. 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 been true!
1. Early Christian Ireland, Liam de Paor, Thames & Hudson, (1960), pg 15
2. Celtic Heritage, A. Rees, Thames & Hudson, (1961) pg 105
3. The Historians History of the World, (1908) Vol 21, pg 331
4. The Historians History of the World, (1908) Vol 21, pg 332
5. Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland, Estyn Evans, (1966)
6. A History of Ireland, Eleanor Hull