After too long an absence from WP due to health problems, I was struggling to find a subject to write about, or more exactly, a place to write about. Travel’ to me has always been about places away from home, so local sights didn’t inspire me.
Then along came US President, Joe Biden, who, last week visited Carlingford in Co. Louth, Ireland, and my memory flew back to my day spent there on a Leprechaun hunt way back in the late nineties. My photographs are quite old and the place may have changed in the intervening years but I have been told that the changes are minor.
My story started in the border town of Newry, where I’d been watching television in a pub with some friends, about 1996-7 I reckon. A local farmer appeared on the screen, maybe on the local news, with an extraordinary tale. I can’t remember exactly what was said from this point in time, but I’ll try and paraphrase what I can recall.
He held up a finger and thumb about 2 inches apart, “It was about this height” he said, “the usual colours, green top and red trousers”.
The interviewer nodded, “I see” he said, “so, you were bringing the cattle home, there was a sudden blinding flash and then ….”?
“Well, I rushed up to where the lights had been but there was nothing there, nothing at all – but, “he continued, “the ground round about was all charred and in the centre was the wee suit. And this”. And he produced some charred paper from his pocket. “Fairy money”.
The pub had been quiet while he’d been talking: now all eyes were on the TV as we leaned forward the easier to see this remarkable money. A communal expiration of breath broke the tension and nods were exchanged among those who knew the habits of the leprechauns.
“Well,” said the old man in the corner “there’s proof enough. That’s fairy money to be sure. You’ve seen it with your own eyes on the TV. That leprechaun dissolved himself but the clothes didn’t burn, so, he’ll be back for them”.
“Wouldn’t you know they’d do something devilish” said my host Finbar. “Your wee man came in over the border and the price of a jar there is twice what it is here. But sure, we’ll go and have a look for him.
There are fairies at the bottom of virtually every garden in Ireland, especially in the area of the Mourne and the Cooley Mountains. Their habitats are easy to see – trees standing in isolation in the middle of fields, there because the farmer will not cut a fairy tree down because of the resultant bad luck that would come from such destruction. They seem forlorn but are held in warm affection even by the farmers whose planting they interrupt and around which he has to manoeuvre the harvesting machinery.
It’s not generally known that as well as their positive image of keepers of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the negative side of leprechauns is their malevolent nature. They have been known to bring terrible misfortune to those who have injured their trees, dealing out punishments that range from breaking legs and tipping people down wells to causing the death of farm animals and (for minor offences) ensuring the bread doesn’t rise. They can be merely mischievous at times, and can cause the loss of a bicycle, or a shoe, or even make someone lose their way home from the pub. It all depends on the perceived offence.
The expedition to look for the leprechaun had to be postponed until Sunday to enable as many people as possible to take part. Time was also needed for individual families to get their supplies together, for there’s no point having a leprechaun hunt that’s not convivial. Picnic baskets had to be prepared, the refreshments purchased and carefully packed – soft drinks for the children, something stronger for the adults.
It was a happening in the best sense of the word. No one organized it, no one directed it. It just seemed that on Sunday afternoon a mass exodus took place from the town. Some travelled by car, some by bicycle, some on foot, crossing the border that divides Ulster from the rest of the island of Ireland at different points, to the confusion of the British Army surveillance helicopters overhead (this was before the Peace Agreement of 1998), as we all made our way towards the small coastal town of Carlingford, the area of the leprechaun sighting.
We joined the walking party which was in spirited mood well before we set off. Ballads and folk songs were sung as we ambled along. One or two had brought the flutes and pipes with them and there were a couple of fiddlers in the crowd who would provide the music for a ceili when we got there. Those who had already broached the Bushmills and the Guinness were in a rare mood to sing and occasionally had to be persuaded to rejoin the walk, as they were inclined to fall out and give solo renditions of “Sweet Sixteen” or “Danny Boy” as the spirits took them.
And then we were there. The spot where the wee man himself had disappeared in a puff of smoke. But we weren’t the first to arrive. The travelling people had got there earlier along with stall-holders, ice-cream sellers and hot-dog salesmen. The white heather that grows wild and which we had been walking on as we trekked across the mountain was now ‘Lucky White Heather’ and on offer at only 50p a sprig. Ice-cream was only twice what it normally cost and for an undisclosed sum, one of the gypsy fortune-tellers would divulge the true path to the leprechaun’s hideout.
But the most popular stall was that selling butterfly nets. Large ones, small ones, some that looked as though they’d already spent a summer shrimping, they were all grabbed up quickly. How else would you catch a leprechaun but with a butterfly net? Then in groups, for who would be alone on a day like this, we set off to snare the elusive one.
I gave up after about half an hour as the tantalising sounds of the ceili taking place at the bottom of the hill was calling me. I’d leave the wee man to the local people I decided, after all, he mightn’t like a foreigner being the one to snare him and I didn’t want a broken leg!
At ‘base camp’ more people had arrived and a grand party was a progress. The fiddlers had been joined by an accordionist and the dancing was in full swing. Groups of people had laid out their food and drink and the picnic was well under way. Now and then a shout from above would create a bit of excitement but as the afternoon wore on, the consensus was that the leprechauns had fooled us all again.
“He’s around, never you fear” said Finbar as we packed up to go home. “They can hide under a blade of grass when they like and as he hasn’t got a suit, he’ll be well hidden the day. Anyway, wasn’t it the grand time we had”?
“But we didn’t catch the leprechaun” I said.
He looked at me with a smile. “But, we got a brave bit of craic, and we had the singin’ and dancin’. Sure, the fairies gave us a grand day altogether”.
I’ve still got my butterfly net. It lives in my garden shed, a treasure from that day spent in the mountains that surround the little town of Carlingford in Ireland. I wonder if Joe Biden’s memories will be as vivid as mine as he looks back on his day in the village nestled in the Cooley mountains on the banks of Carlingford Lough. Somehow, I don’t think so, but I’m sure he had a wonderful time, because I remember Carlingford as being one of the most welcoming towns in Ireland, the country of a hundred thousand welcomes.