The leprechaun, old and new. Image (left): Public Domain

As St Patrick’s Day approaches, you’ll start seeing a lot of leprechauns around. But if you think the history of the little man dressed in green starts with the horror movie Leprechaun and ends with the Lucky Charms mascot, you’re way off. The original leprechaun was a bearded old man, who wore red, not green. He spent his time riding sheep and mending shoes, not hording cereal and killing teenagers.

So before the celebrations begin, brush up on your history.

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A Mischievous Sheep-Rider

In his 1899 book Irish Wonders, D.R. McAnally, Jr. describes the leprechaun as more of a mischief maker than an evil doer, whose favorite activity is riding sheep to get around when too lazy to walk, among other vexatious deeds:

Sometimes he will make the pot boil over and put out the fire, then again he will make it impossible for the pot to boil at all. He will steal the bacon-flitch, or empty the potato-kish, or fling the baby down on the floor, or occasionally will throw the few poor articles of furniture about the room with a strength and vigor altogether disproportioned to his diminutive size.

The leprechaun, also known as the logheryman, lurigadawne, luricawne or cluricawne, depending on where in Ireland you go, usually wears red, and measures about three feet tall. Born of an evil spirit father and “degenerative fairy” mother, McAnally writes, he spends much of his time making and mending shoes, which he wears out quickly with all his running about.

In fact, that is the only time the leprechaun can be caught off his guard. And if you catch him, it’s well worth your while. Legend has it the leprechaun will grant his captor three wishes to gain his freedom, or even give up his pile of gold.

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Leprechauns in Space and the Hood

In 1993, the movie Leprechaun, starring a young Jennifer Aniston, featured a murderous goblin bearing no resemblance to the shoe mending, sheep riding version of old. That film was the first in a series of six, including Leprechaun 4: In Space and Leprechaun: In the Hood, starring Ice-T.

The plots of the movies vary widely, but usually come down to the leprechaun having his gold stolen and killing anyone and everyone necessary to get it back.

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A Jolly Cereal Peddler

Outside the movie series, most representations of the leprechauns today see the figure as younger, jollier, and more concerned with protecting cereal than his ancestors or goblin-resembling cousin. At some point, his garb switched from red to green and his voice became rather high pitched.

The most famous leprechaun in modern culture is Lucky, the Lucky Charms cereal mascot, who spends his time trying to protect the “magically delicious” product from children, but always ends up having to share.

Lucky is a lot closer to a mashup of Irish stereotypes than any character of myth. But then again, celebrating St Patrick’s Day doesn’t have much to do with real Irish culture either, focusing on the beer and the color green.