What A Crock!
June 27, 2014
Oh the green hued irony of it all. As cities around the world dye hair, faces and food products to emit a shamrock sheen, it’s not just the rivers of booze-propelled vomit that have taken on artificial colouring. Having corrupted the spiritual celebration of Samhain into that candy and carnage bacchanal (Halloween), the Yanks have tarted up St ‘Patty’s’ Day as well. Now it’s less to do with our national identity and more a commercial enterprise, where people celebrate their ‘Oirishness’ by dressing up like Disney-fied versions of our fable folk.
Is there any greater example of Globalisation than the thousands of revellers, on streets from Donegal to Dingle, who with the help of face paint and tourist shop trappings, invest money to morph into Americanised conscripts of themselves? It’s the ultimate payback of the emigrants we shipped off in coffin ships during the famine to the land of opportunity. As well as building America’s greatest cities, they fuelled a contorted fantasy of a homeland they were never to see again, that would later be beamed into households worldwide.
Chief among these stomach-churning symbols is the leprechaun, also known in 1950s Ireland as Our Worst Nightmare. While we were trying to step into the post-war consumerist world in a coat spun from economic modernity, our American brethren were discovering the suburbs, moving into airconditioned houses with white picket fences, washing machines and automobiles. No longer rooted in the communities they had been ensconced in since getting off the boat, white Americans started to panic about their lost connection and started to re-ethicize themselves.
“The amount of leprechaun stories that emerged occurred over a really sort period of time,” says Tony Tracy, a lecturer at NUI Galway. “In 1946 Finnian’s Rainbow opened and was a huge hit on Broadway. This reintroduced this character that had disappeared from the Irish mind set in the 20th century, catching the eye of Walt Disney who would begin a 10-year process of making a leprechaun film.”
Darby O’Gill and the Little People was released in 1959, as Eamon DeValera handed power over to Sean Lemass, and having the leprechaun so prominently back in public view was seen as a step back towards earlier primitive views of the country. “We wanted our folklore to be taken as complex, like other cultures were,” says Tracy. “The Folklore Commission even asked Disney to not make a movie about leprechauns.”
But the 40m (all of a sudden) Irish-Americans were suffering anxiety about money and a loss of roots. The Ireland they imagined was a safe place and the benevolent leprechaun was the ideal warning figure for all their concerns about the evils of greed.
Darby may have flopped at the box office but its marketing campaign was to irreparably change the leprechaun’s colour scheme, from red to green. Four years later, the sugar-laden cereal Lucky Charms would launch in these same colours, forever tying him to a commercial slope.
“Leprechauns were everywhere. I have a book in my office about Nazi leprechauns that lived in an attic in Connemara and Aer Lingus released an advertisement featuring a leprechaun sitting next to a well-to-do American lady with the tag line: ‘You can’t believe everything you read about us’.”
Just before the Celtic Tiger, the leprechaun was the star of a series of seven self-titled horror movies where the once friendly but tricky fellow had turned into a psychotic serial killer.
We constructed our own crock at this time, selling the American vision of ourselves back to the world, with teddies, key rings, clothing and energy drinks emblazoned with the leprechaun, confident we had finally stepped so far away from the archaic vision of ourselves, we could mock it.
In 2010, just before thebailout, Tom O’Rahilly opened the €6.7m National Leprechaun Museum across from the Jervis Street Shopping Centre. It celebrated its fourth birthday with a snail race (Snail-thenham) last week.
It takes a novel approach to its topic. After an energetic intro from our guide in a room filled with pictures of famous leprechauns, we take a walk down a magic passage and ‘descend’ to leprechaun size so that we can experience the world through his eyes (the roof got smaller, for example). There’s a recreation of the Giant’s Causeway and giant furniture to clamber and sit on.
Some of the myths we are later told make the Leprechaun an uncomfortable, if accurate, mascot for the country’s financial foibles. Like Thomaseen, who rescues the leprechaun from a trap and is granted a purse that refills every time its emptied. But Thomaseen becomes greedy, buying up land and so many horses that he has no use for themand refuses to help anyone else. When the leprechaun finds out, he removes the purse’s magic power. YIKES!
Despite its interesting design and excellent staff, the museum is fairly light on content, lacking -not only the proper exhibits to warrant the entrance fee (the rainbow that leads to the pot of gold, is a bunch of multi-colored strings without the magic mushrooms required to make them anything else) but also any actual leprechauns!
This can be explained by the fact that they are almost impossible to catch and make good on their promise of wishes and wealth. But the museum really needs to more throroughly present the vast research that has been done on the phenomena, if they are not to be accused of the same thing.
That being said, it is also the perfect metaphor for what happened to the country in the last 20 years, a monument to illusory wealth that goes away, having hopefully thought us all a lesson about ourselves.