The Field of Boliauns

Want to hear a story about a nosy Tom, red garters, and a hidden treasure? Well, have we got a story for you! Today, we have a tricky little Leprechaun story from Joseph Jacobs collected works on Celtic Fairy Tales. Jacobs was a Jewish- Australian folklorist known for his extensive edited collections from all over the world, including Ireland and India! He popularized the best-known versions of fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk, The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks! Jacobs wrote in his introduction that he wanted the Celtic stories to come directly from the people of Ireland and embody the essence of the Irish and Celtic folk imagination. We have supplemented our understanding of his stories by looking at original sources from the Irish Folklore commissions records!  Listen to the episode here.

Summary and Notes

Our story starts during Lady-day, which was one of the most popular harvest festivals in Ireland. 

According to the Irish Folklore Commission, there were two lady days: one was a church holiday on March 25th where labourers could pack up and move to another farm. The Lady Day in the Harvest occurs on August 15th, when locals would go to holy wells to pray. 

On this sunny, labour-free day, Tom Fitzpatrick was out for a walk when all of a sudden, he heard a clanking noise coming from a nearby hedge. Tom thought this was very odd! Why would he be listening to stone cutters working at this time? Having nothing better to do, Tom decided to investigate, and when we say investigate, we mean he stood on his tiptoes to peek over the bushes. We aren’t saying Tom is acting like a peeping Tom, but we might be saying Tom is a peeping Tom. 

“The Secret of Kells” from the Irish animation studio, Cartoon Saloon

Although, something can be said of Catholic countries and their regulations around noise-making during holidays. There are many places in Austria and Germany where Sundays are a designated day of rest. This means making too much noise can lead to an angry German granny giving you a stern talking to. 

At this point, the clanking noise ceased, but Peeping Tom wasn’t satisfied. So he peeped some more until he caught sight of a brown pitcher and a wee, old man wearing a dusty cocked hat and a leather apron. Before Tom’s eyes, the tiny fella pulled out a stool, stood upon it and dipped a little pail into his pitcher. Once he retrieved what he could from the pitcher, he placed it next to him and resumed putting a heel-piece on a bit of a brogue. 

“Well I’ll be,” Tom excitedly muttered. “I had always heard tales of the Leprechaun, but I never really believed them! And yet, here is one right before my very eyes! If I play my cards right, I’ll be a made man! They say that you must never take their eyes off these tricky creatures, or they’ll escape!” 

This image shows the Cluricaune, the cousin of the leprechaun, as shown in the DnD companion book, "Tome of Beasts."

Regarding the folkloric status of the Leprechaun, Lady Morgan Sydney wrote, “He is, therefore, generally seen in lone and dismal places, out of the common haunts of man; and though the night-wanderer may endeavour to mark the place where he beheld the guardian of the treasures perched, yet when he returns in the morning with proper implements to turn up the earth, the thistle, stone, or branch, he had placed as a mark, is so multiplied, that it is no longer a distinction, and the disappointments occasioned by the malignity of the little Lepreghaun render him a very unpopular fairy. His name is never applied but as a term of contempt.”

In Thomas Crofton Croker’s “The Field of Boliauns,” Tom encounters a Cluricaune instead of a Leprechaun. The Cluricaune is a solitary sprite related to the Leprechaun, but unlike his well known counterpart, he detests work. These little men can be found raiding the cellars of rich men for a lovely drink.

Creepy Tom quietly moved closer to the Leprechaun, keeping his stare fixed on the creature like a cat to its prey. When he got close enough, he shouted out, “God bless your work, neighbour!” Now, how Tom forced himself through a hedge without breaking eye contact or making any noise is beyond us. 

Either way, the Leprechaun was not startled by Tom materializing through a hedge. He raised his head and said, “Thank you kindly.” 

“What are you working on this holiday?” asked Tom.

Image from Sarah McCormick

“That’s my own business, not yours,” the little man replied. We can hardly blame him since we wouldn’t tell Tom either.

“Meant no offence! Say, what you’ve got in that pitcher there?” said nosy Tom.

“Oh that,” The Leprechaun replied with a grin. ”It’s good beer.”

“Beer!” exclaimed Tom, “Thunder and fire! Where did you get it?”

“Where did I get it? Why, I made it! Care to guess what it’s made of?”

Tom was no expert brewer, but he supposed it had to be made from malt. The little man happily contradicted him and told him it was heath. Upon hearing this, Tom burst out laughing. He did not think it possible. Who has ever heard of beer made from heath? 

The Leprechaun was not bothered by Tom’s outburst. He explained that he learned to make beer from the Danes. He might be a Pilsner man. 

Eventually, Tom asked to try the beer, but the little man rebuked him. The little man told him he would be better off tending to his father’s property than bothering quiet folk. He continued by saying that while Tom was wasting his time, his cows had broken into their oats. Startled, Tom nearly turned around but caught himself. 

Worried that this was a trick to take his eyes off the Leprechaun, Tom grabbed the little man, but in doing so, he knocked over the pitcher. No longer interested in the beer, Tom began his shake-down of the Leprechaun. Tom demanded to know where exactly the Leprechaun was hiding his gold! It escalated quickly, and he began throwing around death threats! Yikes. The little man became frightened by this sudden hostility, and he told Tom that the gold was buried in a few fields over. 

Common Ragwort by Martin Grover

Tom made his way to the field as directed by the little man still clenched in his hand. He never took his eyes off the Leprechaun, even as they crossed hedges, a ditch and a bog. Finally, they arrived at a field full of boliauns where the Leprechaun pointed to a big boliaun and told Tom to dig under it to find a pot full of guineas. Unfortunately, it never occurred to Tom to bring a spade with him, and he figured he ought to fetch one. So he took off his red garter (still staring at the Leprechaun) and tied it to the boliaun to remember where to dig.

Boliaun or Ragwort is a yellow flower that is a poisonous weed. They are considered magical plants, and if you pull them up, the fairies will come after you. By making him disrupt the field, perhaps the Leprechaun was setting up a trap for Tom. 

Image: Common Ragwort by Martin Grover

Tom looked at the Leprechaun and told him to swear that he wouldn’t remove the garter. The man immediately swore that he wouldn’t, but then politely asked if Tom had had any more need of him.

“No,” said Tom, “you may go away now, and God speed to you. May good luck attend you wherever you go.”

“Well, good-bye to you, Tom Fitzpatrick,” said the Leprechaun, “and much good may it do you when you get it.”

With that, Tom ran home as he had never run before. Retrieving the spade, he bolted back to the field of boliauns. Alas, upon returning, he saw that every single boliaun had a garter attached to it. Tom considered digging up the entire field, but it was over 40 acres. While it worked in the movie Holes, Tom was not ready to commit to a task like that, so he went home empty-handed. Every day after, he cursed that Leprechaun and marvelled at the trickery! The Leprechaun had stayed true to his word. He hadn’t touched Tom’s garter at all! 

Overall, Tom’s criminal count is extensive. We have trespassing on two counts, harassment, extortion, threatening murder, and attempted robbery. If you want to hear us detail the crimes of another fictional character, we have strong views on the original Jack and the Beanstalk story, “Hit the Road, Jack Spriggins!” 

1. Irish Folklore vs. Mythology 

Irish Mythology has many overlapping cycles, including The Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. The first two cycles have the Tuath(aDé Danann (Gods and Goddesses) from Tír na nÓg, the land of youth/ land of the promised. This pantheon of Gods is closely related to nature and natural elements. Later cycles focus on the deeds of Kings and Heroes such as Fionn mac Cumhaill (known as Finn McCool) and the fey folk. 

At first, the stories were passed on by bards and individual families, but eventually, they were preserved by noble scribes in Celtic-Christian manuscripts. There is a lot of debate about the mythology of Ireland post-Christianization and the role revisionist scholars had in creating an acceptable ‘history’ for Ireland as opposed to telling the history as it was. Oral storytelling was the best preserver of these stories, which is why there are lots of similar tales with localized details. The Irish Folklore Commission has their original notes on their online archive where they have strived to collect folk tales from the Irish populace in the 1930s.

The Tuatha Dé Danann as depicted in John Duncan‘s “Riders of the Sidhe” (1911)

2. Leprechauns

Ireland is known for having fantastic mythical creatures, including everything from the Banshee to the Kelpie. However, none are as iconic today as the Leprechaun. The Leprechaun is a solitary fairy creature that looks like a grumpy, bearded little man. Today, they are usually wearing green clothing like the Lucky Charms mascot. However, before the 20th century, they were described as primarily wearing red and working as shoemakers. They could be found by the sound of tiny hammering or clanking as they made their shoes. Some sources suggest the word Leprechaun derives from the Irish, “leath bhrogan,” meaning shoemaker. 

While our good friend Tom may have been in over his head when he tried to take the Leprechaun’s gold, he was spot on in his understanding of the lore of this creature. According to legend, when the Danes invaded Ireland back in 795 AD, the Leprechauns either took their plundered gold, or the Danes gave the gold to the Leprechauns to guard. Either way, they supposedly hid their gold in crocks throughout Ireland.

Like fairies and goblins, Leprechauns are known as tricksters. They particularly enjoy tricking those who try and steal their gold. They also sometimes carry around a piece of silver and gold that will vanish after being used. The silver coin will return to the Leprechaun’s pocket, while the gold coin will turn to leaves or ash. Be wary of fool’s gold! More Leprechaun stories can be found here.

3. Irish Superstitions 

Art Print by Púca Printhouse’s Neil Parkinson and Charley Parkinson

The Irish are superstitious folk, and there are many superstitions based on folklore, urban legend and just passed on orally! One of the most popular folk legends is the Blarney Stone or Cloch na Blarnan. Kissing the Blarney Stone gives the kisser the gift of persuasion and the ability to gab! The myth starts with Cormac Laidir MacCarthy praying to the goddess, Clíodhna, for aid in a lawsuit involving Blarney Castle. In a dream, Clíodhna tells MacCarthy to kiss the first stone he found in the morning. He followed her advice on his way to court and was able to win the case with his blarney (flattering talk). MacCarthy was overwhelmingly relieved that he built the stone into his castle. However, a geographical analysis suggests it originated in Scotland. Other folk legends say the stone was given to MacCarthy by Robert the Bruce in 1314.

There are many monster superstitions, such as never picking up a comb from the ground as it belongs to a banshee and never disturbing a fairy fort. As a Catholic country, some superstitions arose from catholicism, such as scoring bread with a cross to let the devil out and leaving a candle burning on your window during Christmas! 

4. Beer

The Leprechaun boasted of crafting great beer made from heath, which was unusual (even for a magical creature). 

To start, let’s discuss how beer is made! At the most basic level, beer is made from fermenting starches in water. Today, barley malt is the most common starch used though wheat, rice and other grains are also fermented. You essentially take the ingredients for bread but make an alcoholic drink instead. 

In 1516, Germany made the Reinheitsgebot, the Beer Purity Law, which dictates what ingredients are used for beer to be, well, bier. The original text says: “We wish…forthwith that…in all our towns and markets and in the countryside no other items be used for beer than barley, hops, and water.” Some addendums would be made to this over the centuries, including the addition of yeast as a core ingredient. This addition was only because yeast was discovered in the 17th century but had already been part of the beer-making process. Besides that, the Reinheitsgebot has mostly stayed the same and is still in effect today, making it the world’s oldest standing food safety and consumer protection legislation.

Prince of purity: Wilhelm IV of Bavaria and the Reinheitsgebot. (Bridgeman Images)

Now that we are more familiar with beer, let’s talk about heath. Heath is not an exact plant but rather a shrubbery habitat. These appear in cooler damp climates such as in Ireland and Great Britain. So if the Leprechaun was referring to the bush plants found in a heath, then you can see how Tom was surprised as this would not be considered a common ingredient for beer. The Leprechaun could also have been referring to heather, a key ingredient in Scottish beers before hops became widely available in the 18th and 1900s. Ultimately, this discussion of heath vs. malt could have been an example of the Leprechaun’s resourcefulness and magical touch. 

5. Irish Drinking

The stereotype of Irish drinking can be traced back to the Celts and the trope of labelling ‘other’ groups as Barbarians. We all know the scene I’m talking about from every high fantasy story where ‘barbaric’ groups have large halls filled with rowdy, bearded men, swigging huge flagons of mead. There are references to the Celts from Roman and Greek writers, however, we often take these accounts with a grain of salt as the accounts were heavily subjective and biased. Greek historian, Diodoros wrote about the Gauls, a group of Celts from continental Europe, and said that they were “exceedingly addicted to the use of wine” and that “when they are drunken they fall into a stupor or a state of madness.”

The ‘drunken Irishman’ stereotype is still prevalent today. It was fuelled by anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States. 

There have been studies by Psychiatrist Dr. Dermot Walsh from the St. James’ Hospital in 1962, which focused on the Irish cultural environment around drinking. These reports include commentary from Elizabeth Malcolm, who argued that 16th-century depictions of Irish drinking were used as a reason to colonize ‘barbarians.’ 

For more information on this, please check out Cambridge Universities, Medical History Journal Volume 65, Issue 1. 

Recommended Reading (Books):

  • O’Donnel: A National Tale by Lady Morgan Sydney (1815)
  • Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker (1825)
  • Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs (1891)
  • Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx (Volume 1 of 2) by John Rhys (1901)

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