What the King of the Leprechauns Did to Patrick and Mary

What the King of the Leprechauns Did to Patrick and Mary

© 2004 by Patrick O’Neil


In the days when the potatoes of Ireland grew no bigger than peas, the potato plants were small and scrawny. The farmers said the plants would fall over and die of fright from a gust of wind. The tiny potatoes were sweet and tasty, but the poor farmers worked very hard, and there was never enough to eat.


Even so, there was music by the fire at night with the fiddle and the whistle. The children played games with sticks and stones. Sometimes there was even a bit of candy, and they had the hope that someday they would be great wealthy farmers or sailors.


Then a blight of roving Leprechauns attacked the potato fields, and all pleasure ended.


Everyone in Ireland knows that Leprechauns are magical little people who gather up great treasures of gold hidden in pots. No one knows how Leprechauns find so much gold, but the richer they are, the meaner they are. They have no wants or cares or pleasures except to sneak around in the night and cause misery for human beings.


The Leprechauns turned the small potatoes black and horrible to taste. They trampled the scrawny potato plants. They frightened the cows and the goats so that the milk was sour, if there was any milk. Everyone in Ireland went hungry.


The Irish fishermen sailed out on the ocean to catch fish for the people to eat, but the fishermen had only sticks and cloth to make boats. The boats were small and cranky. The big fish danced in the waves far from shore and laughed at the Irish fishermen in their cranky little boats. When the fishermen sailed away from the shore to catch the big fish, the big fish tipped them over and chased the swimming fishermen back to shore.


“Ho, ho, ho,” chuckled the big fish. “What fine fisherman these Irish are. Let them catch a fine smelly basket of snails and toads to suck on for their supper. In their silly little boats they will never catch big fish.” The big fish laughed and danced in the waves far from shore, and the people of Ireland went hungry.


As it happened, to the fields at the home of young Patrick and Mary, came none other than the richest and meanest of all the Leprechauns, the Great High King of all the Leprechauns, well known for the cruelty of his pranks. The High King of the Leprechauns blackened the potatoes in an instant, scattered the potato plants among the rocks, and frightened the cows and the little goat in the yard until the animals were all afraid of the sight of each other.


The King of the Leprechauns thought this was very funny. His laughter rolled down the glens in the night like thunder. Every day he thought of more cruel tricks to play on the people, and he danced with glee just thinking about the looks on their faces.


But the people of Ireland were not totally out of luck. Everyone in Ireland knows that a Leprechaun has a weakness. The wild and careless Leprechauns value their freedom even more than gold. Anyone lucky enough to capture Leprechauns can keep them in a potato sack until they beg to be let free in exchange for a pot of gold. By the Laws of the Legends, the Leprechauns must keep their word.


The parents of Patrick and Mary set a trap. Every time they started new potato plants, the King of the Leprechauns came in the night and stamped the plants down to the ground. So, pretending to plant potatoes, the parents of Patrick and Mary dug a hole and lined it with a potato sack.


Around they top of the sack they looped a rope. They covered the top with thin branches. Beside it they set the finest, largest potato plant that was left in the county Derry, but over the top of the sack they set up only a pathetic scraggly little plant.


That night they hid behind a big rock with the rope in their hands and waited. Soon the King of the Leprechauns came dancing through the moonlight with his helpers, trampling the plants.


“Look, your Highness,” shouted his helpers, as they gathered around the fine potato plant. “This is the finest plant left in the county Derry. You should have the honor of stamping it down.”


“You fools,” replied the Great High King. “This is a trap set by those silly farmers. They expect that only the Great High King would trample this fine plant. I will trick them. I will leave their fine plant for another day. I will trample this poor scraggly little plant beside it.”


With that the mean Leprechaun King stamped upon the poor scraggly plant and disappeared directly into the potato sack where he was snapped up tight by the parents of Patrick and Mary. His helpers ran screaming in every direction.


“The King of the Leprechauns is lost,” they cried.


The parents of Patrick and Mary returned home carrying their squirming, howling, potato sack. They were very tired from their night’s work.


“Now you have an important job to do,” they said to Patrick and Mary. “The King of the Leprechauns will not give up his treasure easily. It may take many days. We must go on working in the fields until the King of the Leprechauns agrees to give us gold for his freedom.


We cannot carry a big, fat, howling Leprechaun around all day in a sack. You must watch to be sure he doesn’t escape while we are gone. Above all, you must not be fooled by any of his tricks. We will not let him go unless he swears to give his treasure for his freedom”


Patrick and Mary were proud to be trusted with such a job. They were also afraid of the Leprechaun King. He howled and swore and threatened to strike them with lightning, but they refused to let him go until he agreed to give up his treasure for his freedom.


Day after day, their parents went to the fields while Patrick and Mary guarded the howling Leprechaun King. Every day there was more howling and swearing and worse threats than ever, but they did not give up. Then one day, the Leprechaun king was finally quiet.


“All right,” he said. “I like it in this potato sack a lot, but my kingdom needs me. “I tell you what I will do.” If you let me out of this sack, I will give you each a candy.”


It had been a long time since Patrick and Mary had a piece of candy, and they licked their lips at the thought, but they said nothing.


“All right,” said the Leprechaun, “I will give you a room full of candy, and I will give everyone in Ireland a piece of candy if you will let me go.”


This was a terrible temptation. All the hungry land of Ireland would rejoice.


“But then the candy would be gone. You will trample the potatoes and turn them black, and we will be hungry again,” Mary argued.


“Oh no, I will never harm another potato plant,” replied the Leprechaun King.”


“Maybe not, but what about your helpers?” replied Patrick.


The Leprechaun King did not answer right away.


“Very well,” he said at last. “I can see that you are smart children and not easily fooled. In return for my freedom I will give you a treasure greater than gold. The people of Ireland have hard lives growing tiny potatoes. I will give you potatoes big enough to feed a whole family, big enough to feed a whole country. Such potatoes would make Ireland a happy place. I swear to you that I will give you potatoes as big as a house, but you must release me before your parents return at sunset.”


This was a hard choice. People could not eat gold. Potatoes that would feed everyone in Ireland would be a great treasure, even greater than gold.


“We have to agree,” decided Mary at last.


“What if he is lying?” answered Patrick.


“A captured Leprechaun cannot lie to gain his freedom, you know that, Patrick. He must keep his promise. It is the Law of the Legends.”
“Yes, I know, but I’m afraid that he will trick us.”


“We have his word.”


“All right then, I agree,” said Patrick.


“Well,” said Mary to the Leprechaun. “We agree. Give us the potatoes, and we will let you go.”


“I cannot order my Leprechauns to bring potatoes while I am trapped in this sack. Open the top a little so I can call to them.”


“All right, just a little.”


But the instant the knot on the bag loosened, the Leprechaun King burst through the top like a bolt of lightning and danced across the kitchen.


“Foolish children,” he sang, “enjoy your giant potato,” and he vanished.


“Wait,“ shouted Mary. “You have to keep your promise.”


There was no answer.


“What will we do?” moaned Patrick


Patrick and Mary sat in miserable silence, wondering how they had been tricked by the Leprechaun until finally their parents came hurrying home.


“The Leprechaun King is gone,” wailed Mary and Patrick, with tears in their eyes.


“Never mind the Leprecahun King. The most amazing thing has happened. Come and see. Huge potatoes are growing in the field, potatoes as big as a cows and getting bigger. This is better than gold.”


Patrick and Mary ran with their parents to the field where they found the huge potatoes, bigger than houses. The Leprechaun King had kept his word after all.


“Can we eat some?” wondered Mary, at the sight of the giant potatoes.


Her father cut off a piece and tasted it. He made a terrible face. “It is hard and bitter,” he groaned.


Patrick and Mary stood stunned. They never thought to make the Leprechaun King say the potatoes would taste good. They had been tricked.


By now the potatoes were as tall as trees and stopped growing. They could hear the laughter of the Leprechaun King rolling down the glen.


But the parents of Patrick and Mary had been farmers a long time, and they knew some things about potatoes. Using the eyes from the giant potatoes, they grew new potato plants and joined them with the plants from the tiny Irish potatoes. Sure enough, the new potatoes grew larger and tasted better. The plants were so tough that the Leprechauns could not stamp them down.   Everyone in Ireland rejoiced.


With help from the villagers, they rolled the Leprechaun King’s giant potatoes down to the ocean. They sawed the big, hard potatoes in half and hollowed out big boats. With the big new boats they sailed out to catch the big fish dancing in the waves far from shore.


At first the big fish could not believe the Irish fishermen had sailed out to catch them in big new boats. By the time the fish knew it was true, they were scooped up in the nets of the fishermen. The big fish cursed the King of the Leprechauns, but the people of Ireland would never again be hungry.


Wherever Patrick and Mary went, cheers and gratitude followed them. Sometimes at night, when the wind blows down the glen, they say you can hear the Leprechaun King howling that he should have traded his gold to for his freedom, and since that day, the big fish and the Leprechauns of Ireland have never been very good friends.

A Casual Historie and Commentarie Regarding the Irish Atrocities and Religious Astonishments, Part I: Clontarf to Baginbun

A Casual Historie and Commentarie Regarding the Irish Atrocities and Religious Astonishments, Part I: Clontarf to Baginbun

© 2004 by Patrick O’Neil

The death of Brian Boru at Clontarf in 1014, combined with the adulterous antics of a minor Irish Chieftan, marked the end of prospects for an independent Irish nation. The resulting conflicts and vulnerability invited opportunistic intervention from abroad. It was a predictable pattern, perhaps even inevitable.

The history of conflict in Ireland extends back into the murky and mythical past of the Celtic tribes, far beyond the relatively recent coherence of ecclesiastical records. The various tribes and clans saw themselves more as independent entities, occasionally joining together in greater or smaller units for the sake of resisting invasion or resolving profound questions about who owned the ugliest bull in the neighborhood and other equally urgent concerns.

They saw themselves as unified only in the sense of a common right to occupy national space. To an extent, this vague concept of nation made them both tolerant of foreign culture and vulnerable to organized assault, but for thousands of years, the tribal Irish culture successfully resisted or assimilated invaders, or both.

In 1014, invading Norse and renegade Celts landed at Clontarf, north of Dublin, intent on the subjugation of the Irish clans. They were met and defeated by the forces of the warrior King, Brian Boru, then aged 71. The invasion force that arrived in a hundred ships withdrew in ten, the last time that Ireland could have been considered a united, independent nation.

The story of Brian Boru is a story of intense ambition. Hyperbolically reported to have personally killed “a hundred men in a day,” Boru was neither totally diplomatic, nor totally a nice guy, but he was an effective leader who organized united opposition to the Norse invasion. In a pattern that has come to seem almost inevitable for the Irish, however, through treachery, fortune, or both, the battle deprived the victors of their reigning monarch and insured that there would be no orderly continuation of a national government.

Depending on the account, a force of Norse warriors, either escaping from the battle or following directions from an Irish traitor, discovered the elderly King Brian with a small unit of bodyguards behind the battle lines, The axes of the attacking Norse struck down the High King of the Irish. The killers were quickly overtaken, and by one account, the man whose hand brought down the King of Ireland was tied to a tree with his own intestines for execution, but the damage was done.

For better or worse, the independent Celtic tribes never achieved more than a fragile unity. Despite the victory of the combined Irish forces at Clontarf, the death of Brian brought about internal conflicts between competing Irish leaders.   Even in defeat, the Norse thus insured that the Irish would remain vulnerable to attack for at least the following 1000 years.

In historical terms, the attack was not long in coming. Following Clontarf, the Irish Chieftans enjoyed the freedom to squabble among themselves while squandering the opportunity to prepare for the inevitable. England and the European nations that later became players in the pageant of Irish domination were engaged with their own conflicts. That would not last.

In 1167, the chickens came home to roost by way of Dermot McMurrough, an ambitious minor chieftan and self-styled “King” of Leinster. Mcmurrough got involved with the wife of a neighboring chieftan, Tirnan O’Rourke. Whether by force or cooperation is not clear, but by one means or another, the lady ended up in the company of McMurrough while husband Tirnan was out of town on a pilgrimage.

Dermo relinquished the prize, but Tirnan took it rather personally. Eventually he got an army together and gave Dermot the option to hit the road or join his ancestors. Discretion being the better part of valor, and the lady possibly not being supportive, Dermot took the opportunity for travel abroad.

Dermot was not highly popular in Ireland anyway. There was little prospect of making a comeback without some independent backing, so he appealed to the English King, Henry II, for assistance in return for allegiance. In and of itself, this was not something that alarmed the Irish. It was common practice to go around making temporary arrangements for allies in all kinds of disputes. That was nothing new. It was also common for the Irish to be too preoccupied with their own affairs to predict the potential long-term effects of English intervention, and there was some justification for that attitude also. On the whole, invaders had been either repulsed or assimilated, or both, and the threat was not a serious historical precedent.

King Henry, however, saw some possibilities in an Irish connection. At the time, he was busy arguing with Louis about Normandy and didn’t have resources to mess with the Irish. He did, however, grant Dermot permission to market his cause in the English kingdom. Dermot made connections with an enterprising soldier of fortune cooling his heels in Wales after some bad press, Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, also known by the World Warfare Association trade name of “Strongbow.”

Strongbow was a vicious and opportunistic entrepreneur on the down side of an economic bad streak, and needed little encouragement to go adventuring over the Irish Sea. According to legend, he hacked his own son to death for retreat from battle. Whether the legend was more than marketing hype is another fair question, but the legend certainly reflects the popular conception of Strongbow.

He was not a man of niceties. While he seems to have had a reputation as a shrewd and courageous warrior, his aggressiveness and occasional lapses of diplomacy had earned him King Henry’s disapproval. He hesitated to immediately involve himself personally in the Dermot McMurrough enterprise without express royal authorization, but he quickly assembled a force of several hundred well-armed knights, cavalry and archers to undertake an expedition on his behalf while he waited for the royal thumbs-up that would come a few months later. Thus accompanied, Dermot returned to wreak his revenge on the uncooperative Irish chieftans.

Strongbow could have cared less about Dermot McMurrough’s domestic difficulties. Like King Henry, he saw opportunity in Ireland. It was nothing personal against Ireland. It could have as easily have been Scotland or France.   He just wanted an empire. He was a bit over the hill and politically maladjusted to challenge any national entities, but he had a personal army and the killer instinct. All he needed for a token empire was an inside track and royal approval. Dermot McMurrough provided both.

The decisive landing took place in May of 1169, at Bannow in Wexford at the mouth of a little stream. The name of the stream was Baginbun, inspiring the paradoxical rhyme that subsequently served as one of many epitaphs for independent Ireland.

At the stream of Baginbun

Ireland was lost and won.

Word of Strongbow’s landing got around and the Irish, primarily from around Wexford, raised a somewhat casual forces in opposition. There is some possibility that, in accordance with a long pattern of deceptive negotiations, the invaders offered the opposing Irish the opportunity to join the enterprise in return for a share of the proceeds, another common practice that would have seemed normal at the time.

Either in surrender or as a gesture of cooperation, part of the Irish force relinquished their weapons. The Strongbow response was to break their arms and legs and throw the unfortunate victims off the cliffs at Dunmore.

This amiable gesture made an impression on some of the Irish Chieftans. They should probably have recognized the intent represented in the incident, but in fact they continued to look for opportunities to promote their own interests by way of cooperation with the prevailing force. None of them had the independent capability of opposing the English, yet they were persistently suspicious of their neighbors and jealous of any apparent benefit bestowed by the invader. In many cases they were willing to yield for whatever immediate profit might be achieved. They did not see this as disloyal. They saw it as a kind of competition among themselves.

In 1171, King Henry became concerned by the extent of Strongbow’s Irish success. Ordering Strongbow back to England for an accounting and pledge of loyalty, Henry then prepared his own expedition and set out to throw his weight around in Ireland.

The Strongbow invasion established patterns that have characterized the subsequent history of relations with the English. The English repeatedly engaged in predatory occupations of territory. Deception and brutality were typical of these invasions. The Irish have done their part by failing to establish or maintain consistent objectives. Call it a lack of unity, failure of leadership, or indecisiveness, the results have proven a persistent obstacle to establishing independence.

The legendary inability of the Irish to support common objectives has been exceeded only by the consequences. Perhaps the ancient Celtic admiration for individual valor, self-reliance, and personal perfection required of leaders has achieved the curiously ironic result of impeding defense against a crafty, morally flexible, and organizationally adept enemy. Regardless of the morality of historical events, no culture in history has exceeded the ability of the Anglo-Saxon/Norman to organize and adapt for the domination and exploitation of other groups, talents that continued to distinguish the development of numerous colonial enterprises long after the English nation had relinquished direct colonial control.