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How to catch a Leprechaun

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 17, 2010 - This is St. Patrick's Day, an important day in the family into which I was born. It was a day of wearing things green, of eating things ensnared within potatoes -- and of leprechauns. My mother, Irish to the core, never saw a leprechaun, although she always believed in them. To her way of thinking, leprechauns are a part of the soul of Ireland, not to be found in any other country. So when she visited Ireland in her later years, she went to County Tipperary to see if she herself could see a leprechaun on St. Patrick's Day.

Near the town of Thurles in County Tipperary can be found a famous fairy ring where it is said leprechauns have been seen for centuries. The Thurles fairy ring is an immense dark green circle, 500 feet in diameter, found in a rolling meadow called the Glen of Cloongallon. At the center of the fairy ring looms a circle of six ancient standing stones, taller than a man, topped by an even larger capstone. A majestic oak tree believed to be mre than 600 years old grows at the perimeter of the fairy ring, shading it. Legend has it that the leprechauns, grateful for the shade, saved this oak from Tudor axes in Queen Elizabeth's time, when most Irish oaks were felled to build Henry VIII's and Elizabeth's navies.

On a cold and rainy St. Patrick's Day morning 34 years ago, my mother stood for hours in this Irish glen beneath this enchanted oak, gazing across this fairy ring at these sacred stones, looking for a leprechaun. Her patience was not rewarded.

Not everyone is as narrow-minded as my mother about leprechauns. My daughter's kindergarten class at Meremac school in Clayton was convinced that leprechauns can be found outside of Ireland. Indeed, Caitlin and her fellow Meremac kindergartners thought leprechauns live within the brick walls of their own school, and set out to trap one. Three weeks and 20 years ago, at the beginning of March, the students in my daughter's class began to construct their traps.

How should you go about catching a leprechaun?

First, know your quarry. Leprechauns are famous in Irish folklore as solitary shoemakers. They are often pictured in America as wizened bearded dwarfs in green suits, smoking pipes. Actually, there is no evidence leprechauns are all males, or look any different than you or I -- just a lot smaller.

Long ago, leprechauns were part of a fairy group known as Luacharma'n, meaning the "little people." Over the years this name somehow became confused with the Irish word leath-bhrogan, "maker-of-a-shoe," and the leprechaun has come to be known as a tiny shoemaker, cobbler for the other fairies.

What is of particular interest about leprechauns, cobblers or not, is their connection to gold. There is an ancient tradition, passed down through centuries of Irish lore, that leprechauns are the self-appointed guardians of ancient gold treasure left by the Danes who devastated England and Ireland 11 centuries ago.

If caught by a mortal, so the legend goes, a leprechaun may offer to tell you where his hoard of gold is hidden in return for his freedom. The leprechaun must tell the truth, for in this it is bound by courtesy and fairy law. But only so long as you look it in the eye, as courtesy demands. You must never take your eye off of it for even an instant, for that frees the leprechaun from any obligation of courtesy, and it will vanish.

A leprechaun fairly caught must be honest, but nothing rules out its being tricky. In a famous tale, a leprechaun captured in a garden said truthfully that his gold was buried under a certain bush. The man who had captured him tied a red handkerchief to the bush, and set the leprechaun free after it promised not to remove the gold or the handkerchief. The man then went off to get his shovel. When he came back, he found the leprechaun had tied identical red handkerchiefs to hundreds of bushes! You can never trust a leprechaun not to trick you.

How are the Meremac kindergartners going about catching a leprechaun? Many of their traps resemble shoe boxes with trap doors. Within the shoe box they place a trinket to lure the leprechaun to enter. Gold is said to be the best lure, one of mother's old earrings, say. The box is then placed in an out-of-the-way spot in the classroom, with a bit of green about it to attract the leprechaun's attention.

Did they catch one? They didn't that year. Nor, it seems, has any Meremac kindergartner in the following 20. Still, perhaps next year will tell a different tale.

Personally, I am of my mother's persuasion. I think leprechauns are Irish to the core, and that no leprechaun worthy of the name could bear to leave Ireland. My mother was right. The place to look for leprechauns is the fairy ring at Thurles.

I am not alone in this conviction. A group called the Leprechaun Watch has installed a video camera in the oak tree under which my mother stood, to look for leprechauns on St. Patrick's Day, much as she did years ago. The camera is connected via a satellite phone to the internet. For the past 10 years anyone interested in joining the watch for leprechauns has been invited to watch free between sunrise and sunset on St. Patrick's Day (the Leprechaun Watch webcam at www.irelandseye.com ). I always take a look, in fond memory of my mother.

However, although I have been looking in on Glen Cloongallon on St. Patrick's Day for 10 years now, I haven't seen a thing. I am beginning to think leprechauns aren't as dumb as this scheme assumes, and that they deliberately avoid the ring on Saint Patrick's Day, knowing we are watching. So now I am going to start checking in on odd days throughout the year. You do, too. If anyone sees anything, please let me know. Good science, my mother's remembered voice reminds me, lies in not rejecting the impossible too quickly.

'On science'

George B. Johnson's "On Science" column looks at scientific issues and explains them in an accessible manner. There is no dumbing down in Johnson's writing; rather he uses analogy and precise terms to open the world of science to others.

Johnson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Biology at Washington University, has taught biology and genetics to undergraduates for more than 30 years. Also professor of genetics at Washington University’s School of Medicine, Johnson is a student of population genetics and evolution, renowned for his pioneering studies of genetic variability.

He has authored more than 50 scientific publications and seven texts, including "BIOLOGY" (with botanist Peter Raven), "THE LIVING WORLD" and a widely used high school biology textbook, "HOLT BIOLOGY."

As the founding director of The Living World, the education center at the St Louis Zoo, from 1987 to 1990, he was responsible for developing innovative high-tech exhibits and new educational programs.

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