In recent years St. Patrick’s Day has become controversial because of a maligned and often caricatured minority. I’m referring, of course, to leprechauns. Reviled, mistreated, and still all too frequently portrayed as happy little figures sitting on toadstools smoking pipes even though increasingly they’re switching to e-cigarettes the leprechaun is still the object of prejudice and misconceptions. Many of us, in fact, have passed by or even worked alongside leprechauns, often without realizing it. In the interests of time I’ll just be addressing a few of the most common misconceptions here.
The first is the ancient belief that leprechauns are mischievous, even dangerous creatures. Stories of leprechauns luring travelers into bogs or inflicting injuries on those passing through wooded areas go back as far as the 8th century, but sociologists now agree that such behavior is not characteristic of leprechauns, and is, in fact, quite rare. While there may be some basis in truth for these stories it’s widely accepted that destructive behavior was the act of a minority among leprechauns who, feeling marginalized from the culture as a whole, acted out in anti-social ways. Unfortunately this misconception has been perpetuated and reinforced by stories that are still told to children, as well as in movies, such as the 1993 film Leprechaun, its many sequels including 2000’s Leprechaun in the Hood, and, of course, the 1980 Al Pacino movie Cruising.
There is also a less common misconception of leprechauns as helpful. There are stories of leprechauns discreetly doing farm work, including harvesting, milking cows, and repairing small machinery. Again there may be some basis for these stories, but not all leprechauns enjoy the outdoors or are suited for farm work. Many prefer to work in offices, or seek employment in fields such as shoemaking. This is, of course, not to say that all leprechauns are adept at working with footwear, but many did find this to be an accepted trade. It’s believed this originated from leprechauns making shoes for fairies who, being generally more accepted, would be asked by more common folk where they got such amazing stilettoes. Working as cobblers proved to be profitable even when leprechauns were subject to such fierce discrimination that they were kept out of most cities and towns and had to form their own exclusive villages, commonly known as leprechaulonies.
Stories of farmers rewarding helpful leprechauns with suits of clothes, only to find that the leprechauns considered this an insult and would disappear, may also have some basis in truth, mainly because you can’t expect a leprechaun to wear that coat with those pants, especially after Labor Day.
Finally we come to the most common and persistent belief about leprechauns: that they are hoarders of massive quantities of gold which they keep in pots at the end of rainbows. This belief has been so pervasive that attempts have been made to lure leprechauns with artificial rainbows by everyone from Sir Isaac Newton to the manager of the band Pink Floyd. As a belief it was understandable at a time when people regarded meteorological phenomena as magical, unlike now when it’s understood that rainbows are caused by the refraction of sunlight through water droplets suspended in centaur farts. Because rainbows rarely have ends that reach the ground it’s still not understood how exactly leprechauns could have kept their alleged pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, in spite of several theories advanced by folklorists and experiments attempting to hang pots of gold from rainbows using balloons. A frequently repeated tale is that a leprechaun, when caught, may be forced to give up the location of his pot of gold, but only if the person who caught him keeps his eyes fixed on the leprechaun. In stories of this type the leprechaun often escapes capture by telling the person who caught him that there’s a fierce beast or the Chrysler building just over his shoulder. Folklorists believe that there is some truth in this, but only to the extent that leprechauns seem to have invented the “made you look” joke. Also it’s now known that leprechauns are not inherently wealthy. While there are some who have enjoyed success—the heir to the Lucky Charms fortune, for instance, or Mickey Rooney—leprechauns are no more likely to be wealthy than the general population.That concludes the lecture for today. In preparation for next week read pages 126-153, when we will be discussing genetic mutation and its potential for altering reality. Our lab work will involve real four-leaf clovers, but I’d better not catch any of you wishing for a better grade.