Leprechauns are a type of fairy, though it's important to note that the fairies of Irish folklore were not cute Disneyfied pixies; they could be lustful, nasty, capricious creatures whose magic might delight you one day and kill you the next if you displeased them.
Leprechauns are often described as wizened, bearded old men dressed in green (early versions were clad in red) and wearing buckled shoes, often with a leather apron. Sometimes they wear a pointed cap or hat and may be smoking a pipe.
In their book "The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures," John and Caitlin Matthews trace leprechaun legends back to eighth-century legends of water spirits called "luchorpán," meaning small body. These sprites eventually merged with a mischievous household fairy said to haunt cellars and drink heavily.
Other researchers say that the word leprechaun may be derived from the Irish leath bhrogan, meaning shoemaker. Indeed, though leprechauns are often associated with riches and gold, in folklore their main vocation is anything but glamorous: they are humble cobblers, or shoemakers. Shoemaking is apparently a lucrative business in the fairy world, since each leprechaun is said to have his own pot of gold, which can often be found at the end of a rainbow.
According to Irish legends, people lucky enough to find a leprechaun and capture him (or, in some stories, steal his magical ring, coin or amulet) can barter his freedom for his treasure. Leprechauns are usually said to be able to grant the person three wishes. But dealing with leprechauns can be a tricky proposition.
The leprechaun plays several roles in Irish folklore; he is principally a roguish trickster figure who cannot be trusted and will deceive whenever possible. In her encyclopedia "Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins," folklorist Carol Rose offers a typical tale of leprechaun trickery "concerning a man who managed to get a leprechaun to show him the bush in the field where his treasure was located. Having no spade [shovel], the man marked the tree with one of his red garters, then kindly released the sprite and went for a spade. Returning almost instantly he found that every one of the numerous trees in the field sported a red garter!"
In the magical world, most spirits, fairies and other creatures have a distinctive sound that is associated with them. Some entities — such as the Irish fairy banshee and the Hispanic spirit La Llorona — are said to emit a mournful wail signifying their presence. In the case of the leprechaun, it's the tap-tap-tapping of his tiny cobbler hammer, driving nails into shoes, that announces they are near.
In his collection of Irish fairy and folk tales, W.B. Yeats offered an 18th-century poem by William Allingham titled "The Lepracaun; Or, Fairy Shoemaker" which describes the sound:
"Lay your ear close to the hill.
Do you not catch the tiny clamour,
Busy click of an elfin hammer,
Voice of the Lepracaun singing shrill
As he merrily plies his trade?"
The 1825 publication of a book called "Fairy Legends" seemingly cemented the character of the modern leprechaun: "Since that time leprechauns seem to be entirely male and solitary," they note.
It seems that all leprechauns are not only shoemakers but also old male loners, which makes sense from a cultural standpoint, since that type of fairy is so closely associated with shoemaking, a traditionally male vocation. Though there is something curious about all leprechauns being cobblers (what if they want to be writers, farmers, or doctors?), this designation also fits in well with the traditional folkloric division of labor among fairies.
Leprechauns in popular culture
As with many old legends and traditions, the image and nature of the leprechaun has changed over time and has been updated (and in some cases sanitized) for a modern audience. Lucky the Leprechaun, mascot of the General Mills breakfast cereal Lucky Charms, is probably the best-known fairy of his type.
On the other end of the spectrum there's the homicidal leprechaun Lubdan in the "Leprechaun" horror/comedy film series (played by "Willow" actor Warwick Davis). For generations, some Irish have been annoyed by leprechauns and the ethnic stereotypes they perpetuate, and for most Americans leprechauns only appear around St. Patrick's Day.
Leprechauns offer a morality tale figure whose fables warn against the folly of trying to get rich quick, take what's not rightfully yours or interfere with "The Good Folk" and other magical creatures. Belief in leprechauns and other fairies was once widespread on the Emerald Isle, and real or not they will continue to amuse and delight us for centuries more.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore." His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.