The Louvre of leprechauns
A museum dedicated to Ireland’s mythical little people opens today in a former Fás office on Jervis Street. It has an overscaled room, giant maps, and of course a shop, but is it leprechauny enough?
On Monday, The Irish Timesarrived for a preview at the former Fás building on the corner of Jervis Street and Middle Abbey Street, which now houses Ireland’s newest tourist attraction. The place was still without signage, the shutters were down, and from within the building came a distinctive sound of tap-tap-tapping, like a thousand industrious leprechauns engaged in shoe-mending.
Once we got inside, it emerged that this sound was being made by frantic human men fitting floors, benches, giant maps, lighting, and display cabinets. Whatever about those crocks of fairy gold we grew up hearing about: never underestimate the magic that can be wrought in less than 48 hours by builders with a deadline.
Designer Tom O’Rahilly, whose project this is, and who is the museum’s director, believes he has spotted a leprechaun-sized gap in the market. He first started planning the museum back in 2003, and for the past year it has taken all of his time.
“It didn’t start out as a commerical venture,” he explains, when asked about the challenges of opening an escoteric museum in a recession. “We’re moving into a period of time in Ireland now where we look at things differently in our society.” For O’Rahilly, the museum is “really about story-telling”.
Visitors will go through a series of rooms, accompanied by a guide, who will start by explaining to them what a leprechaun is. “We produced a character in folklore and exported it. And then it was exported back to us.”
The guide will mention the fact that the master of fantasy himself, Walt Disney, came to Ireland to search for our leprechauns. What he made of his experiences resulted in the 1959 movie, Darby O’Gill and the Little People.
There is quite a beautiful optical illusion tunnel that visitors pass through, and while inside you are encouraged to look backwards and forwards, as the perspective tricks you. This bit is all about “going from the world outside to the world inside” O’Rahilly tells me. What he really wants the museum to give visitors is “the leprechaun experience”.
After the tunnel, you walk under a wooden reproduction of the hexagons from the Giant’s Causeway. Now that you are in the “world inside” you’re supposed to be beginning your leprechaun experience. And that means feeling small.
Hence the Giant’s Causeway reference, and in the next room, giant furniture – a chest of drawers, two outsized chairs and a great big table. They are three times normal size. These, I am instructed by O’Rahilly, are the correct proportions of human size to leprechaun size. “So you should now feel like you’re the size of a leprechaun!”
How does he know these are the official human-leprechaun metrics? “It’s the popular conception. Leprechauns are little people, scaled down to one third human size. They’re not elves, or gnomes, or even trolls. They’re little people.”
Also walking through the complex with us is Ciara Gogarty, the development and marketing manager. She’s talking about fairies, and how they move around. “Fairies move in clouds of dust,” O’Rahilly says. At this point of the tour, we’re probably near more fairies than leprechauns, since every room is temporarily coated in thick and mobile coverings of dust.
There is a rain room, with umbrellas for a ceiling, and the sound of rain pouring down. I am puzzled. Why is it raining inside? Is there not enough real rain usually falling outside in the other world beyond the tunnel? “Before we get to a rainbow, we have to have a rain room,” O’Rahilly explains patiently. Ouf! Rain. Rainbows. Leprechauns. Crocks of gold. All I can think is that I’ll never get into Mensa at this rate.
We walk through the rainbow room; bead curtains of colours. In the next room is – or will be today – a tree stump with a crock of gold appearing to float over it. “What is the gold made of?” I ask pragmatically. It’s made of real gold of course, I’m told. “Maybe you’d better not put that in,” one of the builders says. Is he winking at me?
There is a room with a huge map on the floor, telling the story of the Children of Lir, with mythological sites marked on it. There is another room covered in sheets of bronze-coloured metal, which will reflect maps and visuals of sites such as Newgrange and “fairy forts”. Voiceovers will tell you about these places.
O’Rahilly explains that the idea is that you feel you are inside one of Ireland’s neolithic sites, and that the images will be constantly bouncing off the bronze walls to give a 3-D illusion. I’m not sure what this has to do with leprechauns. Frankly, I was expecting the Leprechaun Museum to be a little more leprechauny, and a lot less neolithic.
The remaining rooms will variously feature the story of a man who attempts to catch a leprechaun, and a well surrounded by floor-to-ceiling tree trunks. “There’ll be fairy dust and magical things will happen to your reflection in the water. Water represents a transfer to another world,” Gogarty says.
“After this, you’ll enter the retail unit,” she announces brightly. Ah, the retail unit, that well-known transfer to another world. The real crock of gold is not floating over a tree stump three rooms back, it’s located beside the exit. “We will have quality products there,” she says. The quality products will include branded Leprechaun Museum T-shirts, badges, umbrellas, pens and notebooks.
After my tour, I am still not sure what market the Leprechaun Museum is aiming at. It’s not cheap, at €10 a ticket for adults and €7 for children over five. But Tom O’Rahilly insists it will be visited by “everyone who enjoys a good story”, and anticipates so much footfall that he is recommending on their website people buy timed tickets for their visit. “We don’t want people to have to be queuing, or to be disappointed about not getting in,” he explains. Timed tickets are usually only sold by museums or galleries to manage access to popular temporary exhibitions with an international draw.
It’s a little hard to believe there is going to be such demandfor visits to a museum dedicated to something that does not actually exist. Well, put it this way – have you ever laid eyes on a leprechaun?
Leprechauns? What a complete crock!
THE LEPRECHAUN is always male, and usually elderly. There are no records of female leprechauns. He is usually depicted wearing green, with a black stove-pipe hat. When not mending shoes, he is guarding a crock of gold, located somewhere near the end of a rainbow. Folklore has it that if you catch a leprechaun, he is obliged to reveal the hiding-place of his crock of gold.
Leprechauns make many appearances in literature, film and popular culture. WB Yeats, in his book Fairy and Folk Tales, wrote: “Do you not catch the tiny clamour,/ Busy click of an elfin hammer,/ Voice of the Leprechaun singing shrill,/ As he merrily plies his trade?”
Former Taoiseach John Costello when addressing the Oireachtas in 1963, declared: “For many years, we were afflicted with the miserable trivialities of our tourist advertising. Sometimes it descended to the lowest depths, to the caubeen and the shillelagh, not to speak of the leprechaun.”
The National Leprechaun Museum opens today at 1 Jervis Street, Dublin 1. Leprechaunmuseum.ie. Opening hours: 9.30am to 6.15pm