St. Patrick's Day: Lore of the leprechaun in Dublin

(Fotolia)

(Fotolia)

MITCHELL SMYTH, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Leprechauns -- the little people who tease humans with the lure of a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow -- have been a feature of Irish mythology for more than a thousand years, says our guide in the National Leprechaun Museum in the Irish capital.

But, she says, it took Walt Disney, in the middle of the 20th century, to bring the wee men -- they're always male -- to the attention of the rest of the world.

In so doing, she adds, the Hollywood mogul changed the whole culture of Irish mythology. Leprechauns would never be the same again.

She explains: "Disney produced the 1959 movie Darby O'Gill and The Little People, the 'little people' being leprechauns. But whereas, in Irish tradition, the leprechauns were dark, nasty creatures, the film cast them as pretty benign.

"In Irish culture, too, the leprechaun was always dressed in brown with a red hat, but Disney changed that to a green suit."

And that's the image that exists today, reinforced, she notes, by advertising and things like Lucky Charms cereal boxes and kids' picture books.

Despite the name, the Leprechaun Museum is not a museum in the conventional sense. In the words of one reviewer it is "an evocative sculptured installation based on themes from leprechaun mythology . . . a story-telling tourist attraction rather than a museum."

That mythology, of course, includes the rainbow and the pot of gold. We are guided through a room with a rainbow arch of coloured ribbons and into a den in the centre of which is the proverbial pot of gold (looking, to this reporter's eyes, like potatoes wrapped in gold foil).

Earlier, we had gone through a tunnel designed to disorient us, leading into a room where you're made to feel like a little person because the furniture is three or four times life size. The kids -- and some adults -- climbed aboard a 3-metre-high chair to get their pictures taken.

The museum doesn't confine itself to leprechauns but takes in the whole gamut of Irish fairy mythology, culled from the tales told through the ages by the seanchai -- travelling storytellers who kept alive Ireland's enchanted past.

One recurring seanchai story was about fairy trees: Trees which a landowner daren't cut down for fear of terrible reprisals. That's why, all over Ireland to this day, you'll find trees growing in the middle of a field, or even in the middle of a road. Cutting down such a tree would put a curse on the axe-man. As the guide stresses: "Irish fairies are not nice little winged Tinker Bells."

She retells one of Ireland's favourite fables, the story of the Children of Lir, who who were turned into swans by a wicked stepmother. But like so many Irish fables, there is no happy ending: When the Children of Lir were restored after 900 years, they were ancient crones that withered and died.

NEED TO KNOW

For more information, see leprechaunmuseum.ie. For tourist information on Ireland, check the website visitireland.com.

IRISH TALES

-- The $6.8-million museum opened in 2010. Most of the funding was in place during Ireland's boom years ("the Celtic Tiger"), before the crash of 2008.

-- Guides say the earliest written reference to "the little people" is in the 8th century when a leprechaun lures King Fergus into the sea for a pot of gold and a sea monster kills him.

-- Five years after distorting Ireland's version of the leprechaun, Walt Disney was at it again; he severely altered the focus of the Mary Poppins books in his movie of that name -- an incident fully recorded in the new film Saving Mr. Banks.

-- The travelling storytellers (seanchai) who kept alive the ancient stories, were afoot in Ireland into the 1950s, but in smaller numbers. Radio and then television finally killed the tradition.

-- Three years before hitting stardom as James Bond in Dr. No, a rather wooden Sean Connery appears in Darby O'Gill and the Little People. His acting improved in the interim.


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