Leprechauns: Little people with a big identity crisis

We begged Disney not to make a movie about leprechauns, but Aer Lingus used them for ads. Do we like them or loathe them, asks Caomhán Keane.

Leprechauns: Little people with a big identity crisis

THE Irish Americans have tarted up St Patrick’s Day so much that it has less to do with our national identity and has more to do with commercial enterprise. People celebrate their ‘Oirishness’ by dressing up like Disney-fied versions of our fable folk.

Is there any more absurd example of globalisation than thousands of revellers in Ireland, on streets from Donegal to Dingle, wearing face paint and using tourist-shop trappings to morph into Americanised versions of themselves?

It’s the ultimate payback of the emigrants we shipped off in coffin ships during the Famine to the ‘land of opportunity’. As well as building America’s greatest cities, they fuelled a contorted fantasy of a homeland they were never to see again, that would later be beamed into households worldwide.

Chief among these stomach-churning symbols is the leprechaun, also known in 1950s Ireland as ‘our worst nightmare’. While we were trying to step into the post-war consumerist world in a coat spun from economic modernity, our American brethren were discovering the suburbs, and moving into airconditioned houses with white picket fences, washing machines and automobiles. No longer rooted in the communities they had been ensconced in since getting off the boat, Irish-Americans started to panic about their lost connection and their ethnicity.

“The amount of leprechaun stories that emerged occurred over a really short period of time,” says Tony Tracy, a lecturer at NUI Galway.

“In 1946, Finian’s Rainbow opened and was a huge hit on Broadway. This reintroduced a character that had disappeared from the Irish mindset in the 20th century, catching the eye of Walt Disney, who would begin a 10-year process of making a leprechaun film.”

Darby O’Gill and the Little People was released in 1959, as Taoiseach Éamon de Valera handed power over to Sean Lemass. Having the leprechaun so prominently in public view was seen as a step back towards earlier, primitive views of the country.

“We wanted our folklore to be taken as complex, like other cultures were,” says Tracy. “The Folklore Commission even asked Disney to not make a movie about leprechauns.”

But the forty million (a suddenly large number) Irish-Americans were suffering anxiety about money and a loss of roots.

The Ireland they imagined was a safe place, and the benevolent leprechaun was the ideal warning figure for all their concerns about the evils of greed.

Darby may have flopped at the box office, but its marketing campaign was to irreparably change the leprechaun’s colour scheme, from red to green.

Four years later, the sugar-laden cereal, Lucky Charms, would launch in these same colours, forever tying him to a commercial slope.

“Leprechauns were everywhere. I have a book in my office about Nazi leprechauns that lived in an attic in Connemara, and Aer Lingus released an advertisement featuring a leprechaun sitting next to a well-to-do American lady with the tag line: ‘You can’t believe everything you read about us’,” says Tracy.

Just before the Celtic Tiger, the Leprechaun series of seven horror movies transformed the once friendly but tricky fellow into a psychotic serial killer.

We constructed our own crock at this time, selling the American vision of ourselves back to the world, with teddies, key rings, clothing and energy drinks emblazoned with the leprechaun, confident we had finally stepped so far away from the archaic vision of ourselves that we could mock it.

In 2010, just before the bailout, Tom O’Rahilly opened the €6.7m National Leprechaun Museum, across from the Jervis Street Shopping Centre. It celebrated its fourth birthday with a snail race last week.

The museum takes a novel approach to its topic. After an energetic introduction from our guide, in a room filled with pictures of famous leprechauns, we take a walk down a magic passage and ‘descend’ to leprechaun size, so that we can experience the world through his eyes (the roof got smaller, for example). There’s a recreation of the Giant’s Causeway and giant furniture to clamber and sit upon.

Some of the myths, we are later told, make the leprechaun an uncomfortable, if accurate, mascot for the country’s financial foibles. Like Thomaseen, who rescues the leprechaun from a trap and is granted a purse that refills every time it’s emptied.

But Thomaseen becomes greedy, buying up land and so many horses that he has no use for them and refuses to help anyone else.

When the leprechaun finds out, he removes the purse’s magic power.

Despite its interesting design and excellent staff, the museum features some oddities, like a rainbow that leads to the pot of gold which is made up primarily of a bunch of multi-coloured strings (without the magic mushrooms required to make them anything else), and there aren’t any actual leprechauns.

Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that leprechauns are almost impossible to catch and rarely make good on their promises of wishes and wealth.

That being said, the Leprechaun museum is also the perfect metaphor for what has happened to our little country in the last 20 years, a monument to illusory wealth that eventually disappears right before our very eyes, having hopefully taught us all a very valuable lesson about ourselves.

* www.leprechaunmuseum.ie Jervis Street, Dublin 1. Daily opening hours: 10.00-18.30 (last entry 17.45)

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