Sheepfolds, Palaces, and Leprechauns: A Rebuttal of Curran’s History of Fairies and Religion

In his book, The Truth About Leprechauns, Bob Curran collects and organizes all the extant knowledge we have on these small creatures in fascinating detail. He examines everything about them, from their height, gender, and age, to their known professions and society. His work is delightful in its detail as it sketches a profile of these devious little creatures from the various conflicting sources around Ireland. As fun as this topic is to read about, an astute reader soon broods over a dark strand running through the various stories and accounts of leprechaun sightings. It seems that leprechauns, and indeed all Celtic fairies, are concerned about their immortal souls, and that the church as condemned them to hell. This adds a sour note to the otherwise merry proceedings, knowing that these little fairies desperately want to enter heaven, but are routinely denied the church sacraments, ensuring their damnation.

While this fact seems distressing, it does not have to be the end of the story for our little leprechaun neighbors. In fact, I would like to argue that the gospel, the good news, extends even to them, and that by their very inquisitive nature they too will be saved, despite the church’s best efforts. I would like to offer a rebuttal to the morose ending Curran bestows on the Celtic fairies by offering them the good news of the Kingdom of God.

In that enigmatic shepherd passage in John 10, Jesus claims to have sheep in other folds, or rather, “sheep that do not belong to this fold” (v. 16). While rampant speculation surrounds what exactly Jesus was referring to in this passage, for our sake it will be helpful to delve into the Greek words he uses. In 10:16, Jesus says that he has sheep not of this fold (NRSV). The word “fold” here comes from the Greek word αὐλή (aulē). As it turns out, αὐλή has a wide variety of definitions which color the word. It a common sense, it can refer to a sheepfold, or a pen of sorts, almost always in an outdoor, semi-building/dwelling connotation. However, the word is more frequently used in the New Testament to describe the outer courtyard of houses, palaces, and even the temple itself. In Matthew 26:3 and Mark 14:54, αὐλή is used to describe where the events of Jesus’ trial at the hands of Caiaphas and the high priests took place, namely the “palace of Caiaphas” (Matthew) and the “courtyard of the high priest” (Mark). Likewise, in Mark 15:16 αὐλή is used to describe the outer courtyard of the governor’s palace. Luke and John also make use of αὐλή in describing courtyards for people.

Interestingly, to show the breadth of the word αὐλή, Jesus uses the word in Luke 11:21 while teaching about demons and exorcisms. After explaining that Satan cannot cast out Satan, Jesus says that when a strong man protects his castle (αὐλή), his property is safe. Finally, αὐλή is used in Revelation 11:2. In this passage, John is given a vision of God’s two witnesses who are charged with measuring the Temple in Jerusalem. However, the witnesses are told specifically to not measure the courtyard (αὐλή) of the Temple. Therefore, it would seem that this Greek word contains a wide range of meanings, from a simple sheep pen and semi-permanent outdoor shelter to a courtyard made for people in houses, palaces, and even the Temple itself.

The traditional rendering of αὐλή in John 10 then, fits within the context of the shepherd teachings that he is engaged in. However, it is interesting to note that the word Jesus chooses to use, or rather the word that John chooses to insert here, suggests a broader range of meaning for this strange little teaching, and that it is not stretching the definition of the word to translate Jesus’ words as claiming to have sheep from another Temple/palace courtyard/dwelling.

To add another layer to this teaching of Jesus, the Greek αὐλή comes from the Hebrew חָצֵר (ḥā·ṣēr). This Hebrew word has a base definition of “courtyard,” referring most often to an open, outdoor area that may have walls or may not. This is best seen in 2 Samuel 17:18 when Absalom and a boy visit a man’s house and enter the courtyard of the house that contains the family well. Most interestingly though, חָצֵר can refer to a village or settlement of people that is too small to warrant a defense wall. In Deuteronomy 2:23 this word is used to describe several desert settlements. In Joshua 13:23ff the word is used repeatedly to describe the small villages that fall within the boundaries of the twelve tribes. Finally, in Leviticus 25:31, when describing the Jubilee land laws, the author states that houses sold to another owner cannot be redeemed in a Jubilee year unless they are a חָצֵר, in which case they are so small that they are considered “open country” and therefore subject to redemption and release laws. These houses, settlements, and courtyards are sometimes described as “passim”, or “here and there, scattered abroad.”

In his treatment of Leprechauns and religion (i.e. Catholicism), Curran relates a haunting story that sums up the Leprechaun’s eternal plight. In the story, a farmer was working his field at twilight when he felt he was being watched. Upon turning around the farmer encountered a leprechaun standing in the shadows of a rock. The leprechaun had one request of the farmer, that he should go and ask a nearby priest if there was any possible way for the leprechaun to receive eternal life. In fact, the exact question the leprechaun asks is, “…will [I] ever see the delightful mansions which are said to lie in Paradise?”[1] Needless to say, after an absurd ensuing conversation the farmer goes and asks the local priest, who was said to be wise in all religious matters. The priest’s answer to the question was, “if he has so much as one drop of Adam’s blood in his veins, then he has as much hope of salvation as any man. But if he has not, then salvation is denied to him and he will never see Paradise.”[2] When the farmer relayed the priest’s answer to the leprechaun the following twilight, the leprechaun, “crouched down and gave a long, long cry of great sadness. ‘Ochone! Ochone!’ His weeping would have broken your heart to hear it.”[3]

Throughout his book detailing the lives and ways of leprechauns and other Celtic fairies, Curran often notes that while fairies, with leprechauns being a sub-group of fairy, are often wary of churches and priests, and that holy water and the sign of the cross tend to drive them away, Celtic fairies are transfixed on the notion of Paradise, mainly because of the prohibition against them from entering it. The Catholic Church, it seems, was the first to deal a blow in the war between the Celtic fairies and God. The Church claimed that fairies (including leprechauns) were the last remnants of the old pagan land gods, and therefore could have nothing to do with the Christian faith.[4] Finally, the Church made a broad-sweeping pronouncement that no fairy could enter the Heavenly gates because fairies could not be baptized, since baptism was for the remission of sins in Adam’s bloodline, whom Jesus died for. Since fairies are not a part of the Adamic bloodline, their sins have not been forgiven by the blood of Christ, and therefore they stand damned. As Curran notes, “you could hear their cries and lamentations in every old rath and fort all across Ireland. It was a long, low sound, like the wind in the bushes, but it was the cry of the leprechauns that they had been denied God’s salvation.”[5]

However, often in Celtic myths surrounding fairies and leprechauns, the fairy in the story is concerned about the state of their soul and is seeking, albeit mischievously, to attain entrance into Paradise. The story related by Curran above is a proto-type story. Always the concerned fairy makes his or her plea, is asked if they have even a drop of Adam’s blood, and then is left bereft of their eternal plight. Curran even relays stories of leprechauns attempting to hide in the bushes near a baptismal font with the hopes that some water would splash out and inadvertently baptize them. Likewise, Curran notes that often leprechauns, despite their aversion to churches, would creep into a church attempting to look for crumbs from the holy host, desperately seeking some form of salvation.[6]

Of course, Curran takes great pains to describe leprechauns and where they live. In his second chapter on habitats and habits of the leprechaun, Curran notes that leprechauns, “prefer to adapt already existing locations for accommodation purposes rather than to construct new dwellings from scratch. In many cases, they will use portions of extant human habitations – ruined houses, old barns, even fallen church ruins.”[7] On the other hand, Curran notes that leprechauns especially like to live in the open because they have a magic that gives them an affinity for natural things like earth. Favorite abodes for leprechauns are around large stones that form natural barriers and protection against the elements. Largely, leprechauns choose earthy, natural places to dwell in, as long as it connects them with the elements while still providing some protection for them and their belongings.

When one keeps these things in mind while reading the teachings of Jesus in John 10, interesting connections begin to appear. Jesus claims in verse 16 to have sheep of a different fold. This comes after a series of teachings about being the shepherd of a flock of sheep. The good shepherd leads his sheep, feeds them and protects them from the elements. Jesus furthermore says that he is not only the good shepherd, but the good door, letting the sheep in and out and keeping out the thieves. Then comes his random statement that he has sheep in other αὐλή, folds, courtyards, palaces, etc. Additionally, these sheep who seemingly fall outside the “normal” or “assumed” flock of believers, must be led by Jesus himself (v. 16). Jesus says that these sheep know the voice of the good shepherd and will follow him where he leads. Eventually, Jesus concludes, there will be one flock and one shepherd.

If the full range of meaning is applied to αὐλή and חָצֵר respectively, Jesus is claiming that the sheep of a different flock are found in the courtyard, or the lean-to dwelling, even in the mansions and temples. This recalls Curran’s description of leprechaun dwellings in abandoned houses and ruins. The αὐλή leans on the meanings of חָצֵר, which suggest that the sheep of the second flock reside in small dwellings that aren’t big enough to warrant protective walls. It would seem that the second flock of Jesus, the flock that falls outside the boundaries of the first Adamic flock, rests in its own small pen, perhaps dotted across the grassy hillocks of Ireland.

However, the real interest comes from Jesus’ surprising pronouncement that these other sheep know the voice of the true shepherd, and will follow it. Curran often notes the utter despair that leprechauns feel when they realized they will never enter heaven. He even recalls a story of a female fairy so desperate to enter heaven that she seduces a good Christian man to have a child with her in the hopes that her child, having a drop of Adam’s blood, will be allowed to be baptized. When this man refuses to acknowledge his half-fairy baby on the steps of the church in the presence of the priest however, the fairy hurls her baby at the baptismal font where the baby dissolves into ash and the font is broken beyond repair. It would seem that the fairies have heard the call of the good shepherd, but are thwarted at every turn by a prejudiced church and Christendom. In fact, according to Curran, Ireland is filled with the weeping and wailing of fairy spirits who long for Heaven but are constantly denied it. These sheep of another dwelling hear the voice of the shepherd, but cannot follow.

Perhaps it was the fairy populations then, that Jesus was referring to when he claimed to have followers of a different dwelling who know and follow the voice of the good shepherd. And as if that were not enough good news for leprechauns, we remember the three stories of lost things that Jesus tells the crowds and Pharisees in Luke 15. Among the stories that he tells, the first tells of a lost sheep that the good shepherd must go and find. The second story tells of a lost coin that a good woman must go and find, while the third story tells of two lost sons, one in the house and one outside that the good father must find. With the fairy hordes in mind, these beings of mischief and intrigue, one could argue that they represent the lost son in the wilderness, lost out in nature among the trees and ruins, hiding in the brambles and stones. These fairies are the lost sons and daughters of God, sent into the world but forgetting their identity as created creatures, lost in their special magic and cut off from the realm of humans. They are like lost sheep, lost sons, and even (the leprechauns will wink at this one), the lost coins of God.

However, the good news for leprechauns, and indeed for all fairies, is that God is that good shepherd, that good woman, and that good father who searches until he finds. Though humans may search and search for leprechauns and their gold, for the tree fairies and water fairies, God knows their place, their homes, and he knows right where to find them. Just as Aslan could summon the water gods and the tree nymphs in Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, so Jesus, the good shepherd, has followers from different dwellings, namely the ruins and abandoned houses of Ireland. Despite the prejudice and racism of the church, the good news for leprechauns, and indeed all fairies, is that the God of creation, the very God they search for, has already found them.

[1] Bob Curran, The Truth About Leprechauns (The O’Brien Press: Dublin, Ireland, 2017), 144.

[2] Ibed, 145.

[3] Ibed, 146.

[4] Ibed, 141.

[5] Ibed, 147.

[6] Ibed, 147.

[7] Ibed, 41.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s