If you happen to be in Oxford anytime between now and mid-January, the Ashmolean has a very fine exhibition called "Last Supper in Pompeii". What particularly interested me, though, wasn't the lava bread but a well-preserved statue of a woodland sprite. It was the face. The wide, high cheekbones, slanting almond-shaped eyes, the grinning mouth and sharp chin. Show that to any child today and they'd still know it for a goblin or an elf. And those are faces you can see from time to time even on the street. I walked past two chaps in Brighton, both on the short side, wiry of frame, and with the same bright vulpine features. Some few with faerie blood still walk among us.
It's curious to think that a particular look has been thought of as elfin for thousands of years, and from the Mediterranean to the Western Isles. There's even a genetic condition, Donohue Syndrome, that used to be called leprechaunism because of the distinctive facial features it produces.
So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that many of our best-known fairy tales occur throughout the world, and some may go back as far as 6000 years. Here's a nice one from County Kildare, and if you want to get into the spirit of Oíche Shamhna, there are a few more in the same vein here.
Thomas Fitzpatrick, a young farmer of Kildare, was sauntering along one holiday when it came into his head to shake out the hay and bind up the oats, as the weather looked like changing. As he was doing so he heard a stump-tapping sound like a stonechat, only it was late in the season for a stonechat to be calling. So he stole along to see what it might be, and, peering through the bushes, he saw a little wee man with a wee leather apron tied round his waist hammering away fitting a heel-piece to a little bit of a brogue. Tom knew it was no other than the Leprechaun. He knew the Leprechaun was the richest creature in all Fairyland and he knew if he could keep his eye fixed on him he could force him to give up one at least one of the crocks of gold he had hidden about in the fields. So he made a sharp pounce on him and held him tight and threatened him with all the worst things he could think of unless he showed him where his gold was hidden. He was so fierce that the little man was quite frightened, and he said, ‘Come along with me and I’ll show ye where it’s hidden.’ Tom fairly glued his eyes to the little fellow, who directed him through sticks and stones, and up and down and to-and-fro till they got to a field just covered with bolyawn buies (ragwort). He pointed to a tall one and said: ‘Dig under that bolyawn and ye'll get a crock chock full of golden guineas.' It was a holiday, so Tom hadn't his spade by him, so he tied his red garter round the bolyawn. ‘You’ll not be wanting me again,' said the Leprechaun. ‘No, no,' says Torn. ‘Now you’ve showed it me I'll off away for a spade.' So the Leprechaun melted away like a drop of water in sand. Tom ran for his spade as fast as the wind. He was gone no time at all, but when he got back there was a red garter round every bolyawn in that field.