Irish Leprechauns

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER V....continued

In many remote, lonely glens there dwelt certain fierce apparitions—females—called Geniti-glinni, 'genii or sprites of the valley,' and others called Bocanachs (male goblins), and Bananachs (females): often in company with Demna aeir or 'demons of the air.' At any terrible battle-crisis, many or all of these, with the other war-furies described above, were heard shrieking and howling with delight, some in the midst of the carnage, some far off in their lonely haunts.

In the story of the Feast of Bricriu, we are told how the three great Red Branch champions, Laegaire the Victorious, Conall Cernach, and Cuculainn, contended one time for the Curathmir, or 'champion's bit' (chap. xvii., sect. 1, infra), which was always awarded to the bravest and mightiest hero; and in order to determine this matter, they were subjected to various severe tests. On one of these occasions the stern-minded old chief, Samera, who acted as judge for the occasion, decided that the three heroes separately should attack a colony of Geniti-glinni that had their abode in a neighbouring valley. Laegaire went first; but they instantly fell on him with such demoniac ferocity that he was glad to escape, half-naked, leaving them his arms and battle-dress. Conall Cernach went next, and he, too, had soon to run for it; but he fared somewhat better, for, though leaving his spear, he bore away his sword. Lastly, Cuculainn: and they filled his ears with their hoarse shrieks, and falling on him tooth and nail, they broke his shield and spear, and tore his clothes to tatters. At last he could boar it no longer, and showed plain signs of running away. His faithful charioteer, Loeg, was looking on. Now, one of Loeg's duties was, whenever he saw his master about yielding in a fight, to shower reproaches on him, so as to enrage him the more. On this occasion he reviled him so vehemently and bitterly for his weakness, and poured out such contemptuous nicknames on him, that the hero became infuriated; and, turning on the goblins once more, sword in hand, he crushed and hacked them to pieces, so that the valley ran all red with their blood.

The class of fairies called siabra [sheevra], who were also Dedannans—a sort of disreputable poor relations of Manannan and the Dagda—were powerful, demoniac, and dangerous elves. They are mentioned in our earliest literature. To this day the name is quite familiar among the people, even those who speak only English: and they often call a crabbed little boy—small for his age—a "little sheevra": exactly as Concobar mac Nessa, nineteen centuries ago, when he wag displeased with the boy Cuculainn, calls him a "little imp of a sheevra." The sheevras were often incited by druids and others to do mischief to mortals. In revenge for King Cormac mac Art's leaning towards Christianity, the druids let loose sheevras against him, who choked him with the bone of a salmon, while he was eating his dinner.

The Leprechán, as we now have him, is a little fellow whose occupation is making shoes for the fairies; and on moonlight nights you may sometimes hear the tap-tap of his little hammer from where he sits, working in some lonely nook among bushes. If you can catch him, and keep your gaze fixed on him, he will tell you, after some threatening, where to find a crock of gold: but if you take your eyes off him for an instant, he is gone. The leprechauns are an ancient race in Ireland, for we find them mentioned in some of our oldest tales. They could injure mortals, but were not prone to do so except under provocation. From the beginning they were of diminutive size; for example, as they are presented to us in the ancient tale of the Death of Fergus macLeide, their stature might be about six inches. In the same tale the king of the leprechauns was taken captive by Fergus, and ransomed himself by giving him a pair of magic shoes, which enabled him to go under the water whenever, and for as long as, he pleased: just as at the present day a leprechaun, when you catch him—which is the difficulty—will give you heaps of money for letting him go. No doubt, the episode of the ransom by the magic shoes in the old story is the original version of the present superstition that the leprechaun is the fairies' shoemaker.

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