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Extract: Manchán Magan on the the controversy around the Irish word leprechaun

Taken from an extract from his book, 32 Words For Field, which has been nominated in the An Post Irish Book Awards.

Manchán Magan

IN HIS LATEST book, the author and broadcaster Manchán Magan explores the Irish language – in particular, the lost words of the Irish language. He spent six years researching the book, which shows how the Irish language has wonderfully evocative ways of describing the world around us. Here, in a chapter on Fairy Words,  he looks at the leprechaun. We’re revisiting this extract as the book has been nominated in the Best Irish Published Book of the Year category (sponsored by TheJournal.ie) at the An Post Irish Book Awards. 

Perhaps the form of fairy that has caused the most controversy is the leprechaun.

It’s a sensitive issue for Irish people, because of the way it was handled in 19th-century English and American journals and most particularly in the Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959).

Its depiction of leprechauns came to be used to mock Irish people and was later commodified to help sell legions of tacky souvenirs.

But Walt Disney in fact based the depiction of leprechauns on reports compiled by the Irish Government documenting people’s attitude to the spirit folk.

It was a national research project called the Schools Manuscripts Collection that ran for 18 months from 1937 and produced more than half a million pages of material that was gathered by 100,000 children from their grandparents, grand-uncles and grand-aunts, as well as from older members of the community.

The collection contains more than 375 accounts of leprechauns, from practically every county, ranging from 39 in rural Co. Cork to a single one in Co. Louth. It can therefore hardly be considered culturally insensitive to refer to leprechauns or to our past belief in them.

To take two examples, there’s an account in the collection by Patrick Donoghue, a farmer from Raharney, Co. Westmeath, who was 85 in 1937.

At a bridge called the ‘wild cats bridge’ about two miles from the village of Raharney a leprecaun is seen playing a bagpipes at the bridge every night at twelve o clock. At the other side of the road it is said that there is a pot of gold buried and a turkey hen left to mind it.

For Donoghue, this was just a piece of local knowledge. It was a fact, just as how we are now told to believe that the molecules in a table are constantly moving, even though most of us will never see this with our own eyes. Donoghue went on to say that John Kellet of Raharney “is supposed to have caught a leipreachan. He asked him to give him the gold.

He said he would and then he said to John that his wife was calling to him and when John turned round the leipreachan went away.”

His neighbour Pat Farrelly, a former labourer, remembered a time when Tommy Scally “was spreading manure and while he was doing so a leipreachan appeared and walked around the cart looking at it. The man, who had never seen such a thing before, fainted and had to be carried off. A few weeks after he was out in the field again and the leipreachan appeared. The man caught him by the shoulder but he disappeared out of his hands.”

These are just two among hundreds of tales of encounters with leprechauns, which still exert a certain influence on the language and are frequently referred to in place names.

The word derives from lúchorpán, a small body, but the varieties of it make it clear that leprechauns never had a single, easily definable character.

The most common term is gréasaí leipreachán (a little-bodied cobbler), but one can also find references to lutharacán, lorgadán, lúracán, lochradán, lochramán, loimreachán, loiridín, luadhacán, luiricín, lúiridín, lutharadán, lutharagán and luacharmán. Each word was indigenous to an area. Lutharacán, lorgadán and lúracán are from the Iveragh Peninsula, the Limerick–Tipperary border and the region around Kilkenny and South Wexford, respectively.

Other versions have strayed further from the base version, such as clutharacán, which is found only in a remote area bordering West Cork and East Kerry; geacánach was used from South Ulster down through the stretch of Leinster north of the River Boyne. On the Aran island of Inis Meáin the word lioprachán is used, while just across the water in Cois Fharraige and Carna the same word means a baby bird.

The leprechauns in each area shared the characteristic of being small, and almost all carried with them an inexhaustible fairy purse, which could be yours if you could catch hold of one of the creatures. They were like the lottery, always offering the outside chance of unimaginable wealth.

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Other leprechauns, with slightly different traits, had other names. In the Hiberno-English of Co. Fermanagh a gankeenock (from geancáneach, ‘fairy cobbler’) was a typical leprechaun, while a lockreeman (from lochramán, ‘puny creature’) was bigger than a fairy but smaller than a typical person. West Limerick had lutharagáns, clutharacáns and lorgadáns. The first of these referred to a run-of-mill leprechaun, while the second and third were used for smaller and heavier-set ones, respectively. The Blasket Island poet Mícheál Ó Gaoithín, son of Peig Sayers, referred to loprachán, lochargán, lotharagán, lopracháinín and lochargáinín all within the span of a single story.

Leprechauns have always been part of my Irish-language life in West Kerry, though in my English-language life in Dublin they were confined to films and storybooks. When I was about seven, while digging in the garden between Muiríoch and Baile na nGall, I found an old dúidín, a short-stemmed clay pipe, with its stem broken off.

Most pipes like these are from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, and they can be dated accurately by means of the design stamped on them. Mine was stamped IRISH TRADES ASSOCIATION, which dates it to about 1870, but when I showed it to an elderly neighbour, Maidhc Idá, he insisted it was a pipín lutharagáin, a leprechaun’s pipe.

He said it with such conviction – and the pipe looked so ancient and otherworldly – that I had no cause to doubt him. It was he who told me that the pig nuts I had dug up beneath ash trees were prátaí lutharagáin (‘leprechaun potatoes’) and he had said it in such a way that I never thought to question it. I accepted it as a fact, just as he did, for after all we weren’t far from the lios (‘fairy fort’) where my mother is sure she saw a leprechaun when she was a girl.

She was an only child with a vivid imagination and no cousins or friends nearby to play with, so I can readily believe her.

Thirty-Two Words for Field by Manchán Magan is published by Gill Books. The book is nominated in the TheJournal.ie-sponsored category at the An Post Irish Book Awards – Best Irish Published Book. To vote for your favourite nominated books, visit this link. Voting closes at 6pm tonight.

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Manchán Magan

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