He shows up on the skin of many a tattoo lover just as he does in the muic of Frank Zappa, so let’s see where this character from Irish folklore comes from…
The Leprechaun is a kind of gnome in Irish folklore. The name comes from the Irish word leipreachán which apparently means “little spirit” and derives in turn from luchorpán meaning “water sprite”.
There is an alternative translation which suggests that Leprechaun comes from the compound noun leath bhrógan which means “cobbler” and in fact these little men are often shown mending shoes and in Ireland are traditionally seen as “fairy shoemakers”. One final plausible explanation might be the word luch-chromain (“little crippled Lugh”) seeing as how Lugh was the head of the legendary Gaelic people the Túatha Dé Danann.
In these various interpretations the Leprechaun is shown as an old man who plays pranks on whoever is lucky/unfortunate enough to cross his path. But this is not that easy to do in any case because at the slightest distraction they simply vanish into thin air whereas they will stay where they are if we manage to hold their gaze.
For the rest of the time when they are not playing tricks on people, they are busy making shoes for themselves or other characters in the imaginary world in which they live. Another typical trait of the Leprechaun is the leather satchel worn across his shoulder which contains a single shilling that reappears as soon as it is spentt. This then is the origin of the belief in the wealth of these creatures who shrewdly hid their fabulous riches (at the end of the rainbow). Which means that their treasure can never be found and can be searched for in vain over an entire lifetime.
The poet William Butler Yeats, in his book Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry published in 1888, provides this amusing description of the typical Leprechaun: “A well-turned out chap, he wears a red jacket with seven rows of seven buttons to each row. He wears a tricorn hat and in Ulster the creature wears a cocked hat and it is said he spins, balancing himself on the point of the hat when he finds one the right size”.
Outside of oral folklore and literature, modern media (film, television, TV commercials, etc.) have grossly distorted the image of the Leprechaun robbing him of his Irish culture and turning him into something else. Starting with his jacket which, at a certain point, changed from red to green seeing how, especially in the United States, this strange little fellow has become a sort of official testimonial/mascot of the merry celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day which falls on March 17th.
In modern times even sports and music events have paid tribute to the Leprechaun (not to mention the cinema which turned him into an evil-looking creature more like something from a horror film…) seeing as how he has somehow in the meantime become the mascot of the prestigious University of Notre Dame in South Bend (in the state of Indiana), the logo of the Boston Celtics, the famous NBA basketball team, and the symbol of the Wagga Brothers, an Australian rugby team.
In rock music we have to mention the late great Frank Zappa who pays tribute to the leprechaun in his song Father O’Blivion on his critically acclaimed 1974 album Apostrophe (‘). In the same period the jazz/fusion pianist Chick Corea went one step further and called his 1976 record, now a cult album, The Leprechaun.