The Irish Folklore Centre

Providing a focus for the whole Irish folk tradition

The earliest version of this tale is of the late seventh/eighth century.  It contains the earliest reference to the middle Irish word luchorpán (‘little body’) or leprechaun (in this case a water sprite). It has broad content/themes: honour price (again), inter-tribal/province strife, a magic sword, little people of the Otherworld, a monster serpent in a lake, a fight under water and disfigurement as a bar to kingship.  Fearghus and the little people figure in another version of around the thirteenth century.  This brings the leprechauns and Fearghus into closer contact and repeats the story of his blemish and death.  It is thought to have sown the seeds for Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Tales’.  I have précised both, as they show how the early legends became popularised.

Seventh/Eighth century story:

Fearghus was king of Ulster in Eamhain Mhacha.  In the midlands, Conn of the Hundred Battles and Eochaidh Béalbuidhe (‘yellow mouth’) had fought for the over-kingship at Tara.  Eochaidh lost and placed himself under the protection of Fearghus.  After a few years he decided to return home and make his peace with his kin in Tara.  On the way he was killed by Conn’s son and others.  Fearghus’s protection had been violated and he invaded Coon’s territory with a vast force.  Conn capitulated.  Under the law an honour price had to be paid.

Conn ceded a parcel of land to Fearghus because of his son’s involvement, and the mother, Dorn, of one of the other assassins was given into menial household service in Fearghus’s palace.  Peace was made and Fearghus returned home.

Shortly afterwards Fearghus and his charioteer drove to the sea.  The day was hot and they decided to have a sleep.  Out of the sea came a vast crowd of water sprites who carried Fearghus, without his famous sword, off towards the water.  Touching the water, he awoke to find little people all over him.  He grabbed one from each hand and another from his chest, who was apparently the leader.  The latter surrendered and appealed for mercy.  Fearghus said ‘Yes, if you give me the three things I shall choose.’ ‘You shall have them provided they are in my power’, said he chief sprite.  In the end Fearghus asked for just one, a charm to allow him to move around under water like them.  Butthere was one stipulation; he was never to use it in Loch Rudraighe (near Dundrum Bay, County Down).  Quite what it was the leprechauns gave him is not entirely clear!

But the temptation was too great, and one day Fearghus told his charioteer to take him to the lake.  He dived in, and was immediately confronted by a huge sea monster which ‘at one moment itwould blow itself out and the next moment would contract itself like a smith’s bellows’.  Terrified he fled the lake with his face distorted like a rictus.  He asked his companion what he looked like, and the charioteer said that it was nothing that a good sleep would not fix.  Fearghus fell asleep and the charioteer raced back to Eamhain Mhacha.  Still in his distorted state, Fearghus’s arrival caused consternation as physical blemish was a bar to kingship.  A stratagem was concocted to prevent Fearghus discovering his problem, and everybody at the palace forbidden to tell him.

Everyone took their turn at washing the king’s face, with him lying on his back, so that he would not see his reflection!  It came to the assassin’s mother, Dorn’s, turn.  Fearghus, exasperated at her slowness, struck her with a whip.  Filled with resentment, this noble-born lady taunted him with his appearance.  Now aware of his problem, Fearghus drew his famous sword and cut her in two.

Thinking that his gaping mouth was the result of fear, he drove straight to Loch Rudraighe and battled the monster for a day and a night.  Finally triumphant, he emerged from the lake with the monster’s head, saying ‘I am the survivor’.  At which, he fell back into the water…dead!

Thirteenth century story:

Ibhdán, king of the leprechauns, was hosting a banquet.  All the important people were there.  During the merriment, Iubhdán got to his feet and cried out ‘Have you ever seen a king greater than I?’  Everyone agreed that he was the mightiest, until a loud guffaw from Eisirt, the poet, was heard.  Iubhdán demended an explanation, at which Eisirt told him that one fighting man from the army of Ulster would take hostages and captives from all of Iubhdán’s four battalions.  As Eisirt was being dragged off to the deep dungeons, he asked to be given the chance to prove his claim.  He left immediately.

Greeted at the gate of Eamhain Mhacha by an amazed guard, Eisirt was brought to Fearghus, who was also having a banquet.  Aodh was Fearghus’s dwarf poet and himself small enough to stand on the palm of a warrior.  To avoid Eisirt being blown around by the breath of one of these giants, he asked that only Aodh should carry him.  Fearghus offered Eisirt drink, but the latter refused, at which Fearghus took umbrage and dropped him in a wine glass.  As he was swimming around, he shouted ‘Poets of Ulster will you let me drown when you have such need to know what I have to tell you?’

Lifting him out, he was asked why he had refused their hospitality.  Eisirt said that he would tell them, as long as they promised that he would come to no harm.  ‘No harm, I promise’, said the king.  ‘Listen then’, said Eisirt.  ‘While you make love to your steward’s wife, your foster-son does likewise with your queen.’  Recognising the truth of this, the king and the assembled crowd asked no more questions.  Eisirt now ate, saying ‘You have admitted your offence.  Don’t do it again.’  He became merry and sang of Iubhdán and his people.  After gift giving and enjoyment all round, Eisirt prepared to leave, at which Aodh asked to accompany him to the leprechaun’s land.  Eisirt agreed, and they travelled to the sea, across which he had come.  They were met by Iudhdán’s tiny horse which, to Aodh’s astonishment, was able to carry both Eisirt and himself.  They were greeted by the leprechauns with great joy, and astonishment at Aodh’s size; Eisirt pointed out that he was really quite compared to others at Fearghus’s court.  He challenged Iubhdán to go to Eamhain Mhacha, and be the first one to taste the king’s porridge that evening. He left with his wife, Bébó.

Entering unseen, they found the cauldron in which the king’s porridge was being prepared.  While trying to reach the spoon he fell into the giant pot and was stuck upto his middle.  Bébó berated him for his rash words to Eisirt which had started this chain of events, but said that she would not leave.  Iubhdán moaned that Eisirt had said that he would have to spend a year and a day in the palace, and have to leave behind his greatest treasure.  In the morning they were discovered and taken to Fearghus, who asked who they were.

Iubhdán explained that he was king of the leprechaus and that he had never told a lie.  Initially assigned to the lowest level of the household, Iubhán pleaded that their breath would overpower him, and that he would not leave until Ulster, and Fearghus, allowed him to.  Consequently he was treated very well and was unsupervised.

By now you will have realised that the leprechauns had extraordinary powers and Iubhdán gave regular evidence of this.  In time, seven companies of leprechauns came to rescue Íubhdán, and offered a ransom; they would cause the great plain to be covered every year with a rich harvest of corn, without

ploughing or sowing.  Fearghus refused, and the leprechauns now issued a series of threats, such as burning all the mills and kilns of the province and snipping off all the ears of corn.  Each threat was carried out, and still Fearghus would not be moved.

On the fifth day they threatened to shave all the hair of the men and women, so that it would never grow again; this would have evoked great shame.  Fearghus said that, if they did that, he would kill Iubhdán.  At this Iubhdán intervened, and spoke to his people reminding them that Eisirt had said he must stay for a year and a day and give up his greatest treasure.

The time came and Iubhdán enumerated in verse his many possessions: his shield, sword, helmet, cloak, shirt, belt, tunic, cauldron, vat, mace, horse-rod, drum, needle, pigs and his shoes of white bronze, which took their wearer over land and sea alike.  Fearghus pondered because all of these things were so small.  He decided to try the shoes and see if they would fit on one of his toes; not only did they fit, they grew to cover his whole foot.  This was Iubhdán’s finest possession, and Eisirt’s prophecy was fulfilled.

Iubhdán returned home, and Aodh came back from the land of the leprechauns, where the king’s cup bearer had rested in his sleeve, seventeen pretty women on his chest, four men in his belt and another in his beard.

Some versions of the story repeat Fearghus learning of his facial disfigurement (in this case from his wife) and returning to the lake and his death.

 

 

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