Leprechauns

Mar 16, 2020

Saint Patrick’s Day is almost here, so the Masked Biologist decided to make that holiday, and it’s creatures, the focus of this week’s Wildlife Matters.

Coming up with fresh episodes week after week, for years, can definitely be a challenge. I admit, sometimes I rewrite about an old topic. Other times I grab something out of an interesting and pertinent article or news story. Sometimes I take requests on Facebook, or through WXPR’s True North. And, sometimes I ask my wife and kids. Now, my family admittedly doesn’t listen to or read my material, but they have to live with me daily, listening to me talk about everything all the time, so I have to give them credit. It was my wife who came up with the idea to write about Saint Patrick’s Day. I thought it was surprising that I hadn’t done so before, considering I like to talk about holidays and their ties to our local wildlife or natural resources. It turns out, that’s the very reason I haven’t written this episode – I’ve got nothing.

I was going to write about leprechauns. These little humanoid creatures technically fall under the heading of cryptids, or creatures that have been claimed to exist but whose existence has never been substantiated. So, I spent a couple of hours doing my best to research leprechauns. In a nutshell, their presence in folklore has only been noted starting in medieval times, the age of enlightenment in Europe. At that time, they were a lesser magical being, sort of like elves and fairies. At that time, Saint Patrick’s Day wasn’t observed. In fact, Saint Patrick died in 461 AD, which would have been the beginning of the medieval period. Irish citizens honored him with a holiday starting around 1,000 AD, but the Catholic church didn’t start observing the festival of Saint Patrick’s Day until the early 1600s. Leprechauns through the centuries were considered to dress in red and make shoes. This sounds awfully civilized for a legendary creature. Apparently if you can capture them, they have to grant you three wishes. They are guarding a small cauldron of gold hidden at the end of a rainbow. By the early 20th century, Saint Patrick’s Day became more about celebrating pride in Irish culture and heritage. Leprechauns began to wear green in honor of the Emerald Isle. Honestly, other than a little bit of research in Ireland by televised adventurers and one or two written accounts here in the US, I found nothing that compelled me to write about them. I even looked up leprechaun traps, and it turns out that they are a popular crafting activity for children, and none has ever resulted in an actual documented capture.

As I drilled through my research, I was reminded that Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and was credited with driving all the snakes out of Ireland. “Here it is,” I thought. “I can write about snakes and tie it in that way.” Well, some deeper research told me there are no snakes there; I read about one cool looking lizard, but no snakes. In fact, from what I read, there never were snakes on the island, at least not in the current era. In fact, Patrick never did anything with snakes. Another hour or so of research and I can tell you that there is general agreement that this legend was likely more started as allegory, representing his effort to convert the residents of Ireland to Catholicism. This is an obvious dead end. Besides, March in Wisconsin is really not snake season. We don’t have a lot of snakes here, and winter is probably the major reason. The snakes we do have are expert hibernators, and they won’t be emerging for a while yet. With global travel, an invasion of snakes seems likely, as has happened on other islands like Guam and the Hawaiian islands, except that they are far enough north that any introduced snakes would have to adapt to hibernation, and quick.

So, I owe you, my listeners, an apology. While I learned a lot about this popular holiday, I am afraid it has nothing to do with wildlife. So go ahead, wear green tomorrow, but tonight don’t forget to set and bait your leprechaun traps. And, if you catch one, Facebook me right away, and I will help you find their pot of gold.