Everyone knows a couple of things about leprechauns (aka lurachmain, lurican, leprechawn, lepracaun, leprechaun, lubberkin and lurgadhan). They’re small, tricky gingers that, if caught, will show you the money. One theory about the word’s origin is that it comes from luacharma'n (or luchorpán), the Irish word for “pygmy.” Another theory is that the word is derived from leath bhrogan, meaning “shoemaker.” Not as many people know but leprechauns usually find employment as cobblers or shoemakers. Presumably they make and repair the shoes of other faerie folk and Tuatha Dé Danann, because how else could they make money off each other if they all practice the same trade? And leprechauns make money. If you lay your eyes on one, don’t look away or they’ll vanish.
Although the Irish believe that leprechauns emigrated from the island of Fir Bolg, they’ve nonetheless become one of the most common stereotypical images of Eire, along with that Romano-British Englishman, Sanctus Patricius, whose saint day is (of course) today.
The oldest usage of the word “leprechaun” appears as lubrican in Thomas Dekker’s hit comedy of 1605, The Honest Whore, Part 2. One of the oldest known graven images of a leprechaun is an engraving from 1858. What's something of a surprise to modern society is that back then leprechauns favored natty red attire. In 1831, Samuel Lover described a leprechaun thusly: “…quite a beau in his dress, notwithstanding, for he wears a red square-cut coat, richly laced with gold, and inexpressible of the same, cocked hat, shoes and buckles.” William Butler Yeats echoed that view thirty years later when he wrote of the leprechaun, “He is something of a dandy, and dresses in a red coat with seven rows of buttons, seven buttons on each row, and wears a cocked-hat, upon whose pointed end he is wont in the north-eastern counties, according to McAnally, to spin like a top when the fit seizes him.”
It’s not clear when the modern image of the ghetty green leprechaun arose but that’s the image most of us are familiar with and the one cemented, in large part, by film, TV, video games and, of course, sugar cereal.
Three Wise Fools (1946), Luck of the Irish (1948), Shamrock Hill (1949),
Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Disneyland's "I Captured the King of the Leprechauns," and Droopy Leprechaun (all 1959),
Bonanza's “Hoss and the Leprechauns” (1963), Bewitched's “The Leprechaun” (1966), Finian's Rainbow (1968),
Leprechaun's Christmas Gold (1981), Leprechaun (1982), Getting Lucky (1989), Leprechaun (1993),
Leprechaun 2 (1994), Leapin' Leprechauns and Leprechaun 3 (both 1995), Leprechaun 4 - In Space (1996),
Spellbreaker (1996), Last Leprechaun and Very Unlucky Leprechaun (both 1998), Magical Legend of the Leprechauns (1999),
White Pony (1999), Leprechaun in the Hood (2000), Luck of the Irish (2001), Irish Myths and Legends (2003),
Leprechaun - Back 2 tha Hood (2003)
Not pictured: Leprechaun's Gold (1949), Shamus (1959), Legends of the Isles - Fairies (1998), the Beverly Hills 90210 episode “The Leprechauns” (1999).
The leprechaun has appeared even more often in music. In fact, there are just too many traditional songs with leprechauns to mention. There are a couple of pop songs as well, including Dino O'Dell and the Veloci-Rappers’ “Find Me a Leprechaun,” Sesame Street Gangsters’ “Gay Leprechauns,” Rosemary Clooney’s “Shaun, Shaun the Leprechaun,” Snakefinger’s “Jesus Was a Leprechaun,” Henry Mancini’s “Something for the Leprechaun,” Dixie Dregs’ “Leprechaun Promenade,” Thomas Newman’s “Leprechaun (Threesome),” The Fugs’ “Leprechaun” and the Spade Cooley/Randall Williams/Pinnacle Boys piece, “Latin Leprechaun.”