Leprechauns: You're Doing it All Wrong
For better or worse, leprechauns have long been known around the world as a symbol of Ireland. Usually portrayed as little green creatures, grinning broadly, they are absurd, cartoonish figures, with which we’ve all grown up.
Originally, though, they were something much different. The word “leprechaun” came from the Irish leath bhrógan, meaning “shoemaker.” And in early folklore, leprechauns were often depicted as cobblers by trade. Though they were elven, mischievous creatures, they weren’t evil exactly—just prone to the occasional malicious practical joke.
In those days, different regions of Ireland had their own versions of the Leprechaun folklore, although there were a few elements of common ground. One of those was the leprechaun’s clothing. Originally, all leprechauns were portrayed as wearing red coats, not the green you see today. The green coats came much later in the 20th century, probably invented by foreigners to denote their Irishness.
Where that pot of gold came from, though, is anybody’s guess.
Today, leprechauns also have some less whimsical connotations in Irish society. The description is used by the Irish to describe the crass side of the tourism industry. And on an even more unpleasant note, it’s used by some of the worst elements among Northern Irish Unionists as a term of abuse for the Gaelic language.
So bear all this in mind when you consider buying that figurine of a leprechaun ironing an Irish flag. There’s more to the myth than yellow hearts and green clovers.
You see them all over Ireland, often in the most picturesque rural surroundings, standing alone like sentries: high Celtic crosses with faded stories carved into every inch of space. Haunting and ancient as they seem to us today, when they were created, these carved stones served a practical purpose: They were books, of sorts, in the days when books were rare and precious. Think of the carvings, which illustrate biblical stories, as cartoons explaining the Bible to an illiterate population. Originally, the crosses were probably brightly painted, but the paint has long been lost to the wind and rain.
The Muiredeach’s High Cross at Monasterboice has carvings telling, from the bottom up, the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, and Moses, as well as the wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. At the center of the old cross, the carving is thought to be of Revelations, while at the top St. Paul stands alone in the desert. The western side of the cross tells the stories of the New Testament, with, from the top down, a figure praying, the Crucifixion, St. Peter, Doubting Thomas, and, below that, Jesus’s arrest. On the base of the cross is an inscription of the sort found often carved on stones in ancient Irish monasteries. It reads in Gaelic, “A prayer for Muiredach for whom the cross was made.” Muiredach was the abbot at Monasterboice until 922, so the cross was probably made as a memorial after his death.
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