It’s not every day you meet a Leprechaun Whisperer. And I thought it would be hard to suppress cynical smirks when I did, but when Kevin Woods of Carlingford, County Louth shook my hand firmly, looked me in the eye and gave me one of those smiles which emitted instant kindness and warmth, I could only mirror this and show respect and openness back.
As Kevin (or McCoillte as he is sometimes called) and I walked up Slieve Foye mountain together, I found myself wanting to believe that this was, as he told me, “the only place in Ireland where Leprechauns live”, not just because the affable Kevin has seen three Leprechauns in his life on this mountain but because this is, for me, one of the most magical spots in my home country of Ireland. Located right on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the Cooley Mountain range on the southern side of Carlingford Lough looking straight out over this dividing piece of water to the Mountains of Mourne in the North, an invisible border going with the flow between them, this small town holds a wealth of natural and cultural heritage in its pocket. Any sense of divide is hidden here and long may it continue – starting with my respect for Kevin’s beliefs in Leprechauns.
Leprechauns don’t appear to everyone, according to Kevin, and indeed he shared many people’s cynicism twenty odd years ago when local publican PJ O’Hare found a small suit and collection of tiny bones up on the mountain, as well as a few gold coins. Doubting their origin, Wood decided to make the most of the ‘find’ and organised a Leprechaun Hunt in his capacity as Regional Tourism Chairman at the time. It worked and the hunters came in hoardes but, as if to warn him that there were too many people on the mountain, the Leprechauns then appeared to Kevin on a walk in the hills one day.
I asked Kevin what they looked like as we continued our hike up along the Slieve Foye Loop. “They look just as you might imagine them – like in the cartoons really. That is how they appear to me, because they are spirits. They are about 18 inches tall, have top hats, green jackets, trousers and shoes which are pointed or round and always with gold buckles. They were cobblers because they spent so much time dancing, and so they wear out their shoes – which is why they became cobblers’.
Kevin certainly had the gift of storytelling as we continued up further into the Cooley Mountain range, a landscape where myths abound. Myths which tell of Greek-like transformations from human to animal form such as Donn Cúailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley, a human who had been turned into a bull and which then went on to become the focus of battles between Ulster and Connaught led by Queen Medb in these very mountains.
“I can see some sheep or goats grazing up there on the heathland “I said, soon to be corrected by Kevin who told me, quite nonchalantly, “One of those is the Ghost Horse of Mountain Park. There was a fella called Cocker Reilly – he was known as that because he was cock sure of everything. He used to come up by this part of the Mountain Park, passing a fairy mound every night. One night he relieved himself close to the fairy mound. When he woke up in the morning he couldn’t get out of bed, as he had two extra legs. They (the fairies) had turned him into a horse. He took off up into the hills and that’s who you can see there. You’ll often see him up there. ”
Kevin told these stories in such a matter of fact way that I just wanted to believe him. And so by the time we approached the Slate Rock, a massive ramp of granite which emerges from the hillside, and the place where he first saw the Leprechauns, I asked him if he thinks I will see them. “It’s up to you, if you have the gift”, he said, “I am not sure whether you have the gift or not’. So, keeping my eyes and mind well open, Kevin went on to tell me more about his gift, which allows him not only to communicate with the Leprechaun’s chief elder, Corrig, learn about their history and lifestyles, but also brings him the ability to bring happiness to others and be happy for the rest of his life.
One thing that makes me happy, however, is that Kevin spent nineteen years campaigning for this part of the Slieve Foye Mountain to be officially protected by the European Union, under the EU Habitats Directive to protect flora, fauna and wild animals. He won and in 2009, they received protection, with big brown EU signs up on the hill to prove it. I asked him how he managed to persuade the EU to protect something that was not actually in the physical world, and he said that the artefacts of the clothes and bones were proof enough.
As well as that, the Leprechaun Hunt still happens in April every year which is “not to make money”, Kevin tells me, “but because for every person who stops believing, another Leprechaun spirit dies and so the Hunt increases the likelihood of more people believing.” (For more details see thelastleprechaunsofireland.com). As we headed back down the mountain towards Carlingford town, with sadly no Leprechaun sightings to record this time, and headed for a drink in O’Hares, I couldn’t help wondering if I would be laughed at in the pub as they saw me walking in with Kevin, knowing that another tourist was ‘being had’. But no, we were met with joviality rather than jeers and welcomed in to this lovely local gathering spot. This gift of spreading happiness must be working, I thought to myself. I may have been tricked, or I might not have the gift, but there are few belief systems which make me smile as much as this one. And if Kevin’s gift is to continue spreading the word and happiness with it, who am I to argue? And anyway, I don’t want a dead Leprechaun on my conscience. To be sure, to be sure.
For more information on The Last Leprechauns in Ireland, see thelastleprechaunsofireland.com. And click here for a podcast of Catherine’s walk and talk with the Leprechaun Whisperer. Or to go exploring the hiking trails of the Cooley Mountains see walkni.com and irishtrails.ie. In particular, check out The Tain Walking Festival 1-3 March 2103(carlingford.ie and discoverireland.com)