Every big holiday has a marketable mascot.
Christmas lays claim to Santa Claus, of course, while a fattened, ill-fated turkey symbolizes Thanksgiving. The Easter Bunny and Uncle Sam each bask in the spotlight once a year, as does Cupid, the chubby cherub of love.
While St. Patrick’s Day was created to honor the man credited with introducing Ireland to Christianity around A.D. 432, the leprechaun, a mischievous fairy of Irish folklore, has co-opted the holiday.
Usually depicted as a caricature of a small man sporting a red beard, a green hat and jacket, and a shillelagh (wooden club), leprechauns typically live alone, passing the time by making shoes, pulling practical jokes and storing their coins in a hidden pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
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If a leprechaun sees you, meaning you are not wearing green, you’ll get a nasty pinch. If you manage to capture a leprechaun, you may be able to barter his freedom for treasure or three wishes, but be careful: They often deceive their captors, and if you let a leprechaun out of your sight, he will disappear.
While not as prevalent as certain other creatures of myth, such as vampires or werewolves, leprechauns permeate our pop culture landscape, from the movies and TV shows we watch to the books we read and the sports we enjoy.
Here’s a look at the many times and places we see the little green guys.
Leprechauns on the silver screen
No Friend of Jen’s: The year before she gained critical acclaim and worldwide fame with her role as Rachel Green on NBC’s Friends, Jennifer Aniston made her major feature-film debut as teenage daughter Tory Redding in Leprechaun (1993). The movie is a widely panned horror romp about a menacing mini-maniac (played by Warwick Davis) who goes on a killing spree in search of his pot of gold.
Despite being far sillier than it is scary or smart (Robert Strauss of the Los Angeles Daily News called it “as witless and worthless a horror film as could possibly be conjured”), Leprechaun spawned six less-than-stellar sequels, including 2014’s Leprechaun: Origins, which features wrestler Dylan “Hornswoggle” Post in the title role.
Irish acquaintance: Going back quite a few decades, The Luck of the Irish (1948) stars Tyrone Power as a New York newspaper reporter traveling in Ireland, where he meets a leprechaun (Cecil Kellaway) and a gorgeous girl (Anne Baxter). Disney made a TV movie of the same name in 2001, but it was about a teenage basketball star who, after his lucky coin gets stolen, is revealed to be half-leprechaun. Call it a St. Patty’s Day take on Teen Wolf.
State of confusion: Finian’s Rainbow (1968), a pedestrian effort by the usually great Francis Ford Coppola, is based on the stage musical of the same name. The film finds Og (Tommy Steele), a human-sized leprechaun, in the mythical Southern state of Missitucky, trying to retrieve his pot of gold.
Wishful drinking: In Getting Lucky (1990), a fantasy/comedy written and directed by Michael Paul Girard, the nerd (Steven Cooke), aided by three wishes from a drunken leprechaun (Garry Kluger), tries to get the girl (Lezlie Z. McCraw) and save the world. Like most other leprechaun movies, Getting Lucky is hardly cinematic gold.
Spinning tales: Easily the best and most definitive leprechaun film is Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), a special effects extravaganza starring a pre-James Bond Sean Connery. In his classic film guides, Leonard Maltin called it an “outstanding Disney fantasy about an Irish caretaker who spins so many tales that no one believes him when he says he’s befriended the King of the Leprechauns … an utter delight [with some] truly terrifying moments along with the whimsy.”
Magically delicious: The most famous leprechaun on the planet is probably “Lucky” (aka Sir Charms) from those ubiquitous, “magically delicious” Lucky Charms cereal commercials. Lucky covets the sugary breakfast food, which was the first cereal to include marshmallows in the recipe, and he bemoans the fact that “kids are always after me Lucky Charms.”
Fiery little guy: Lesser known but more mischievous is “O’Reilly the Leprechaun,” a recurring sideline character on The Simpsons who tends to be forgotten amid such popular Simpsons sidekicks as Apu and Millhouse. O’Reilly is a traditional leprechaun in appearance and attitude, but he has an odd habit of telling the nose-picking, non sequitur-spewing Ralph Wiggum to burn things.
Leprechauns gone ‘South’: South Park, a show that obviously owes a debt of gratitude to The Simpsons, has a leprechaun as well, but only in the Emmy-winning “Imaginationland” trilogy, in which Cartman leads the gang through the forest in search of the Irish imp.
Much to Kyle’s surprise, they do spot a leprechaun, who warns them of a forthcoming terrorist attack. Later, the boys board a magical Imagination Flying Machine, which takes them to Imaginationland, a place where all the creatures of myth reside. The trilogy was collected on DVD in 2008.
No brainiac: There’s also “Shado the Brain Thief,” a leprechaun lawyer from Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” series Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law. He uses telepathy to mentally manipulate jurors.
Looney Tunes: If you prefer the classics, spend a few minutes watching The Wearing of the Grin (1951), a theatrical short in which Porky Pig encounters a pair of leprechauns and dancing shoes (copped from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes) at a mysterious castle.
It’s available on YouTube (for a small fee) and on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 1 DVD box-set.
Holiday entertaining: Switching from hand-drawn to stop-motion animation, you know those old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials that show up on TV each year, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town? Surely you’ve seen those several times. What you may not have watched (or even heard of) is The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold (1981), a cross-holiday special featuring the vocal talent of Art Carney.
Leprechauns in print
For the kids: While leprechauns are present in a variety of literary genres, they are especially prominent in illustrated children’s books, from Natasha Wing’s The Night Before St. Patrick’s Day (2009), which puts an Irish imprint on a Christmas classic, to Eve Bunting’s That’s What Leprechauns Do (2009), a cute little story of hijinks and mischief, to Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook’s Ten Lucky Leprechauns (2013), a book about counting and friends.
Learn more: For older readers wanting to learn more about leprechaun lore, try Mary Feehan’s The Irish Leprechaun Book (1995), Carol Rose’s Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia (1998), Niall Macnamara’s Leprechaun Companion (1999), and/or Walter Evans-Wentz’s The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries: The Classic Study of Leprechauns, Pixies, and Other Fairy Spirits (2003).
Green in the ring: In addition to appearing in Leprechaun: Origins, Dylan “Hornswoggle” Post is best known as a WWE wrestler, debuting in 2006 as a leprechaun character. His claim to fame was winning the final Cruiserweight championship before the event was retired in 2008.
On the sidelines: Two legendary icons of American sports, the Boston Celtics and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, lay claim to the leprechaun as their mascot.
The Celtics, founded in 1946, were named by Walter Brown, the team’s original owner. During the early 1950s, Red Auerbach, the Celtics’ legendary coach, commissioned his graphic artist brother Zane to design the Celtics logo: a shamrock-clad leprechaun wearing a bowler hat, smoking a pipe, holding a shillelagh and sporting a mischievous grin. The Celtics have won 17 NBA championships, more than any other team, so the luck of the Irish has truly been with them.
The Celtics are currently accepting applications for the position of full-time team mascot Lucky the Leprechaun. In addition to looking the part, entrants must possess a variety of abilities, including athletic prowess and “excellent people skills.”
In 1964, Theodore W. Drake designed the Notre Dame Fighting Irish logo, which is a side-view of a leprechaun ready to engage in fisticuffs with anyone (or any team) ready for the challenge. The human version, which is a student chosen annually at tryouts, makes public appearances, emcees pep rallies, leads cheers and interacts with fans.
The luck of the Irish has been with Notre Dame as well, especially with the football squad, which has won 11 NCAA championships.
Brett Weiss is the author of “Retro Pop Culture A to Z: From Atari 2600 to Zombie Films.”