The Leprechaun

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Steven O’Brien

And so it all be­gan with my grandad and the Leprechaun. He was a great man for singing and sto­ries. His gen­er­a­tion were happy to turn the tele­vi­sion off on a Sun­day even­ing and fill the si­lence with word-con­jure. As I look back now, I see him in his mus­tard cardi­gan and suede shoes. His den­tures gleam and his hair is Bryl­creemed back, as slick as an ot­ter’s pelt. The false teeth give his speech a whistling qual­ity now and then. When he tells sto­ries he of­ten runs an open palm over his oily hair. I am eleven years old and he is not much taller than me. Spare and dap­per; when he sings he stands by the fire­place with one hand be­hind his back. There is a ban­tam dig­nity about him.

He loves to scare us. Some­times he puts one of my grand­mother’s shawls over his head and rises from be­hind the sofa as the very like­ness of the ban­shee. My brother, my sis­ter and I laugh in a scared-tick­lish way. Such is the the­atri­cal­ity of his moan­ing and hunch­ing over us that we never re­ally be­lieve his ban­shee story. But with the story of the Leprechaun it was dif­fer­ent. He will tell us about his en­counter with the lit­tle man in a mat­ter of fact way, in much the same tone as when he re­counts his rem­i­nis­cences of his own raw and half-starved child­hood, or when he used to hunt plovers for the gen­try. So al­though I am eleven years old, I am only just be­gin­ning to ques­tion the ve­rac­ity of the story. It cer­tainly has no less a ring of truth to it than his claim to have cy­cled sixty miles there and back in one night just to go to a party.

Imag­ine you take a pic­ture of us with a 1970’s Po­laroid cam­era. The gaudy orange and yel­lows of the in­stant photo shows an or­di­nary fam­ily in a neat small house. My fa­ther and mother are smok­ing and sip­ping their third cup of tea. My grand­mother is iron­ing. We three chil­dren are on the sofa. Grandad is in his arm­chair.

He keeps him­self busy do­ing a bit of paint­ing and dec­o­rat­ing and he al­ways wears a col­lar and tie un­der his over­alls. The talk passes through Mrs Knight’s new bath­room which he fin­ished last week, to the next job at the doc­tor’s house. My fa­ther men­tions the sun­set the night be­fore, when he and I were walk­ing our dog Jasper along the beach. Grandad has that Ir­ish way of qui­etly agree­ing by giv­ing a soft in­take of breath, like a sigh in re­verse. My fa­ther stops speak­ing and there is si­lence. There are dark cor­ners in the sit­ting room.

Grandad looks around and says, ‘It puts me in mind of the even­ing I met the Leprechaun.’ And to the hiss and sweep of my grand­mother’s steam iron he be­gins to lay be­fore us the tale of his en­counter.

‘When I was a young man I was com­ing home one late af­ter­noon in April. It had rained but I had been work­ing all day in a barn, cut­ting turnips. I re­mem­ber that the rain had just passed and the fields were all washed new. I climbed over a wall to take the short cut home. The grass wet my boots, es­pe­cially the one with a hole in the sole. I crossed the field and had to skirt a lit­tle wood. It was not far from Kil­dan­gan. I could see the smoke com­ing from our chimney. I was just pass­ing by the trees when I no­ticed a move­ment. In those days we al­ways car­ried our jackets over our shoul­ders if we could, to be ready to throw it over any stray pheas­ants. You had to be quick and care­ful. We needed the meat but the law was against us in that mat­ter; you could get prison for poach­ing. Any­way, I pricked up and looked again to where I had no­ticed some­thing mov­ing. Well, the sight of it nearly had me run­ning the other way. I felt like rub­bing my eyes to see if they were cheat­ing me. For there, by the bank of an old ash tree, squirm­ing and mut­ter­ing was a lit­tle man ly­ing on the ground.

I went up to him with my heart knock­ing on my ribs. Yes, he was a lit­tle man right enough, about the size of a five year old child and he was dressed in a frayed green coat. He had a crum­pled, wrin­kled face and he was wear­ing a tall bat­tered hat. As I came close I could hear him curs­ing and, oh, the swear­ing and blas­phemies. It would make a sailor blush. I sup­pose the length of my shadow gave me away for he looked up in the midst of his car­ry­ing on. He flinched, but then straight­away he seemed to change

his de­meanour. “Well hello Martin O’Brien,” he said in a lit­tle voice that sounded some­thing like a door hinge creak­ing.

“Hello your­self,” I replied.

“You find me in a sorry sit­u­a­tion al­to­gether Martin,” he said.

“Oh is that so?”

“Yes, ter­ri­ble,” he said. “I was just on my way to see my peo­ple and this hap­pened.” The lit­tle man pointed to his foot. I saw that he had got it stuck un­der the one of the roots of the ash tree. “Now how would it be if you could give me a bit of as­sis­tance Martin? For I want to be half way to Wick­low by mid­night.”

“Wick­low is very long way from here,” I said.

The lit­tle man’s hazel eyes flashed with an­noy­ance. “I walk very fast,” he said.

“Do you now?” I said, quiet like, as if I wasn’t the least bit in­ter­ested. For the no­tion had come upon me that the fel­low was none other than the Leprechaun and I wanted to think about a plan of ac­tion. You have to be very care­ful when you deal with the ‘good peo­ple.’ Get your­self pre­pared and be as po­lite as you can. I drew even closer and had an­other long look at him. He was like a cross be­tween a tramp and fox. He smelled of the damp woods.

“Yes Martin.” He took off his old hat and bashed it back into shape. His hair was rusty and long. “I go like the wind and I am run­ning mes­sages all over the coun­try.”

“Well then, let me see,” I said, as I knelt down. I ran my hand the length of the root. It was a thick one. How­ever, I was strong in those days and, clos­ing my fin­gers around it, I gave it a great wrench. Now, what oc­curred next, hap­pened in an in­stant. I was strong but I was also quick and I knew I had to be on this oc­ca­sion. As I pulled the root up the Leprechaun gave a great yelp of re­lief, but this soon turned to a wail, for I had caught him, in

mid-leap, by his left ear.

How he pulled and screeched. One sec­ond he was fu­ri­ous, the next he was in de­spair, then back to fury again. His lan­guage was aw­ful. His lit­tle hands pawed at my fin­gers but I had him fast. “Now, now Sir,” I said, re­mem­ber­ing my man­ners. “I have done you a great favour and soon you will be on your way to the Wick­low moun­tains. But doesn’t one favour de­serve an­other in re­turn?”

The Leprechaun bright­ened up, “Now that you come to men­tion it Martin” he said, still strain­ing against my grasp, “I sup­pose it does, but if you just let go now I will be able to do some­thing for you the next time I am in Kil­dan­gan. Per­haps a bot­tle of fine whisky?”

“No, no, no,” I replied, giv­ing his ear an­other lit­tle twist. “That won’t do at all and if I let you go I will never see you again.”

“That’s an atro­cious calumny Martin,” he said. “I’ll have you know that I am of the qual­ity and I al­ways keep my word.”

“Well this is go­ing to be the way of it Sir,” I said. “I know all about you and your peo­ple. I know what a trick­ster you are. I only want one thing in re­turn for the grand res­cue of your good self.”

The Leprechaun stood up as best he could. He held his hat by his side. He looked at me. “You have me bet­tered,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“Let me see.” I put on my most ca­sual voice. “I was just think­ing that you must have been at­tend­ing some busi­ness in this town­land. So my mind is go­ing along th­ese lines . . . if you just show me where your gold is buried I will let you go.”

“Aw, not that! Not that!” He wailed, and it was like the grief of a cat at mid­night.

“Yes, that ex­actly sir.” “You’ll have me ru­ined,” he cried.

“Not at all,” I replied. “You have plenty of trea­sure all over the place.”

“I never had you down for such a Rap­pa­ree, Martin O’Brien!” His tawny eyes filled with tears of rage.

“Enough, enough,” I said. “You have been gath­er­ing gold for a long, long time and I only want the stash you have buried here. Now take me to it. I won’t let you go un­til you do.”

He gave one last wail and then be­came quiet. “Al­right, al­right,” he said, tak­ing up a lit­tle twisted black­thorn stick.

“This way.”

He led me out into the field and then through a gate into a pas­ture where an old don­key was graz­ing. All the time I had him by the ear and all the time he was grum­bling at the in­jus­tice of it all. Sev­eral times he looked up at me side­ways and sev­eral times I nearly tripped over mole­hills that seemed to spring sud­denly up from the grass. But I was ready for th­ese an­tics. He was just try­ing to shake me off.

Fi­nally he turned us both around thrice, and with a great show of dis­gust he thrust his stick into the earth. “There” he said. “It’s be­low here. You are a rob­ber and a scoundrel.”

I pre­tended I hadn’t heard this last in­sult. “Now be­fore I let you go, I must have a prom­ise from you sir,” I said.

“That you will not take this stick from the ground.”

Pain creased across the Leprechaun’s face. “Aagh! You have my prom­ise.” He squealed.

“Good enough,” I said. As I let him go a great sud­den wind knocked me on my back. When I sat up the Leprechaun was gone, but the stick was still there.

Where I had nipped him be­tween my fin­ger and thumb I had a sore rash

as if I had touched a net­tle. But that scarcely trou­bled me. I ran across two fields as if my shirt was on fire, then over the wall and up the boreen to the house. The sun­set was on my back. My boots clat­tered in the yard and there was my spade lean­ing against the wall by the door. Back, like a hare, down the boreen and over the wall with my spade over my shoul­der. Now the big red sun­set was in my eyes and lust for the buried trea­sure was in my heart. I would be a rich man! I would buy new boots, a fine suit of clothes and a big house with roses in the gar­den and car­pet on the floor.

I leapt the wall like an ac­ro­bat (I was fast in those days) and across the two fields rapidly clos­ing the dis­tance be­tween me and the bray­ing don­key. There was a lash of sweat on my brow, but I was giddy with fine spec­u­la­tion of the trea­sure. Gold coins ly­ing in the black earth. The Leprechaun’s old hoard of stolen money. Soft, gen­er­ous gold. Enough to set a man up for life.

I got to the gate and vaulted it, land­ing in the pas­ture on two feet. And the groan that came from my throat was like a man dy­ing of dis­ap­point­ment. I stood there with my chest heav­ing and I threw my spade on the ground in anger. For the field was staked and pricked by ten, twenty, or thirty thou­sand pol­ished lit­tle black­thorn sticks, all ex­actly the same. The poor old don­key was com­pletely stock­aded by them. They were al­most as com­mon as the blades of grass. The Leprechaun had kept his prom­ise but he had also tricked me. I couldn’t dig up the whole field, so I loped home in de­spond, and I have never been a rich man.

And that is the story of the even­ing I met the Leprechaun. Since that day every time I hear a creak­ing hinge it puts me in mind of that cun­ning lit­tle fel­low.’


In four years my grand­fa­ther would be dead. He took with him all his de­light in the quizzi­cal and the ghostly and the tragic; the sense of a tricksy oth­er­world, very close to our own. Also the no­tion of a thresh­old be­tween th­ese di­men­sions that was al­most ca­su­ally cross­able.

I have had my own en­counter with the Leprechaun. When I was in my early twen­ties I left a friend’s house in the early hours of the morn­ing. We had been drink­ing. I was stay­ing back with my par­ents for a few weeks. My friend’s house was down to­wards the sea on a very grand av­enue, with trees all along the cen­tre. New street lights had been in­stalled but as it was af­ter mid­night it was al­most pitch black. I was singing to my­self to keep my spir­its up, for I have al­ways been afraid of the dark.

As I neared the top of the av­enue I saw a light to my right. That was Jefferies Lane which led to some old flint-walled houses that had been sur­rounded by 1930s vil­las. There was one iron street lamp there from an ear­lier age. I still have no idea why this one lamp was still lit when all the oth­ers were dark. I walked on past the lane but had a great bolt of sud­den shock when I saw a lit­tle man danc­ing in the yel­low com­pass of the light. I stopped quite still, but every mus­cle in me shouted that I should run like the wind all the way home. There he was danc­ing in the light, his tiny face look­ing straight at me. His white socks flicked in a quick-step jig.

In an in­stant I saw that it was an il­lu­sion. It was, in fact, a cat run­ning to­wards me. The danc­ing flash of the Leprechaun’s socks were the cat’s white paws. It might seem daft but for a sec­ond I re­ally had be­lieved I had seen the Leprechaun.

A few years ago I re­lated this story to an old aca­demic who has made a great rep­u­ta­tion in the study of folk­lore and myth. I ex­plained that my be­lief was that at the mo­ment of panic, I drew on the sto­ries I had been given as a child in a kind of un­bid­den ar­che­typal fash­ion. The woman smiled and said, ’How do you know that it wasn’t re­ally the Leprechaun and that he turned into a cat as soon as he no­ticed you look­ing at him?’

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