the leprechaun.

le brehon
le brehon, leprechaun

i was sternly told by an irishman i got talking with one day that the ch in leprechaun is pronounced h not ch: lepre-h-aun, not lepre-c-aun or even lepre-ch-aun, and i’ve always be careful to pronounce it with an h ever since, although in another part of ireland, perhaps they’re not so adamant. not having been there yet, i don’t know. but the intensity with which that irishman insisted impressed me deeply, so i’ll take that as my starting point in my quest for this magical little shoemaker of irish tradition.

basically, he lives under hedges and in ditches, he hammers away at his last, cobbling boots, and he has a crock of gold which you might try to steal from him, but he’ll trick you every time. he dresses in green, and he almost certainly speaks in pure gaeilge. nobody’s ever added much to that as far as i know, although, of course, there’s a lot i don’t know. the oed has it from old irish luchorp/an via a middle irish (!) luchrup/an, adding in a small voice that lu means ‘small’ and corp means ‘body’, and they say it means a ‘pigmy sprite’.

i find this unsatisfactory. a syllable like prech just doesn’t turn into chorp with the passage of time, not even in ireland, not even over the famous p-q- divide. let’s have a peek under that hedge. who would ever be hiding in ditches and hedges in ireland, dressed in green, cobbling his boots and guarding his crock of gold? to be hiding, he’d have to be being hunted, and to be guarding a crock of gold, he’d have to be very rich and there’d have to be thieves after it, and to be cobbling his own or anyone else’s boots, he’d have to be among the best of the noble irish, because the best of the noble irish have always taken care of their own menial tasks, hating slavery, servitude, and the abuse of the weak to serve the strong. (we’ll not look too closely at the worst of them just now.)

that crock of gold may tell us something. we normally envisage it as what a crock is in english: a stoneware jar or vessel for storing bread or pickled onions or similar in, about knee high and filled, in the leprechaun’s case, with glittering golden coins. we imagine it secreted somewhere beside him in his hidey-hole in the hedge. if only we could sneak past him and seize it, off we could run with it and it would be ours! but what if it means what crock means in irish? it would be spelt cnoc, and that means ‘hill’. then we’d have a little man in green cobbling his shoes and guarding not gold, but the secret of the whereabouts of the gold, the particular hill around or within which the store of gold might be hidden. (ireland is full of hollow hills.)

but hidden from whom? the romans didn’t conquer ireland, but the roman catholic church did. it suppressed celtic christianity in ireland as elsewhere and along with it, all the other magical systems and political systems that got in their way. druids, brehons and witches were persecuted there as in england and throughout christendom. you’d find them hiding in ditches. merlin too, hid, guarding his treasure, in a cave.

history relates that, at the time of the forcible conversion of the irish to roman christianity, there was a high king in tara, but i think the records might have been tampered with. ard ri where ard means high and ri means king is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. adjectives follow nouns in irish, and so it should be ri ard. secondly, ri isn’t the irish word for a king. well, all right, i mean it wasn’t, and unless you squint and look sideways till it hurts, getting your gaeilge from the woefully inaccurate dictionary of the irish language as the so-called standard irish tries to do, it still isn’t. conn- might be nearer the mark, though scholars are in denial over it. there were all sorts of ris, righs and res and there’s nothing but a forced analagy with the latin rex to elevate them above the reeves of england, petty officials of limited local power. conns moghs caidhs and caths and all the other notables of ireland were high above them.

the druids anyway we are constantly being reminded, were revered above any king, allowing for good times and bad times, and so we’d be looking for a druid to be the highest authority in tara, wouldn’t we. the people would call her (or him as the case may be) ‘the druid’, or in irish, an draoi, (pron. a’ dree) and that would make more sense to the irish. you’d have to be thinking in latin to write that down as ard ri.

so having that much power, many a druid would be evading torture and death, perhaps by crucifixion, by hiding in the open country, and where they belonged to rich irish clans, they’d have knowledge of the whereabouts of at least one cnoc of gold. clan leaders too, and nobles in the know. maybe the original idea was to winkle out his secret not by innocent wiles, but in the methods more usually employed by the not yet benevolent roman catholic church.

we know that members of the irish intelligentsia were still conducting hedge schools in secrecy on pain of death by hanging if discovered, well into modern times, and perhaps some druids and brehons were among them. as the roman church gained control, language difficulties must have been horrendous. to get a position in the church you had to know latin very well, and only romans tended to, or those who had been educated by romans since childhood, and they’d have spoken almost no irish. communication would have been hit-and-miss to say the least.

we assume that leprechaun is an irish word, but what if it’s latin, a word used by romans to denote irish magicians? the ‘le-‘ is from a norman or roman article, which is ‘an’ in irish. ‘an’ is pronounced (in certain dialects) like the english a to which it is related: an indeterminate vowel sound. before a consonant the n is silent, although it is pronounced in some dialects. but in the past, an was in, so that vowel varies. ‘an leprechaun’ is pronounced ‘uh-le-pre-haun’, then, or rather ‘uh-le-pre-hon’ as most irish people say it.

now we’re getting somewhere. if you were to hear that as latin, what you’d hear would be about as close as you could get to ille prehon and you’d want to add latin endings. (a celtic b often becomes a p in latin).  it is possible that the persecutors may well have been using the term brehon indiscriminately for any kind of magician, as the irish now use the word draoi, especially if they were coming from england where especially in the north, the brehonie were already being persecuted in the same way. or they might have enjoyed insulting them, because using wrong names for people and peoples was a favourite roman war strategy for demoralising the enemy. UBI EST “ILLE BREHONNUS”? (OO-bi EST il-luh-bre-HONNus) (where is the brehon? – latin) le breHON (norman) cá bhfuil “a(n) leprechaun”? (pron. kah’l – uh – leh -(b)pre- hon (where is the (le) prechaun?) try it a few times.

i think it’s a latin word meaning ‘the brehon’. i might be wrong, but i find that more convincing than the oed’s suggestion about the luchorpan. it may date back only to norman times, when ‘le brehon’ would have been the term used, but i don’t know that the normans persecuted the brehons, whereas the romans certainly did.

but what about the shoe last? would a brehon cobble his own boots? i’m reminded of the scottish song about leezie lindsay, in which the aristocratic lassie initially refuses the hand of a suitor because she knows nothing about him, not even who he is, but accepts it gladly when she learns that he is a great chieftain. off they go to his highland home, not to a palace full of servants, but to a humble cottage like those of all their clan, where she is on scrupulously equal terms with everyone and has to milk her own cows and sweep out her own cottage and get the breakfast herself, the same as any woman in the land.

the use of the weak and poor to serve the strong and rich was deplored there too, and these celts were proud of that. perhaps it was so with ‘ille brehon’ as well. the romans, on the other hand, counted themselves noble only when they could command a whole household full of slaves, and they scorned menial work as degrading. their accounts of slavery in ireland at the time of their occupation of britain and of their infiltration through the church were often naive interpretations of scenes in which they called anyone they saw doing menial work, or in a serving role, a slave, because that’s what they would be in their own lands. so before the persecutions began, while the church was still negotiating with druids, they must have been shocked to find them living in unpretentious cottages, getting their own breakfasts, and on one memorable occasion at least, which is here preserved as legendary, hammering his own shoes on a last he held between his knees, and that though he might be the highest in the land. they’d have ridiculed him hugely for that, if only to save face.

so there’s ille brehon for you! slán! in the peace of the grove

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