"Now, you're not going to see anyone dressed as little people," warns Tom O'Rahilly as he leads my group into Dublin's new National Leprechaun Museum on a preview tour last month. "In fact, you are highly unlikely to see any actual leprechauns at all."
Slightly disappointed that there won't be any live specimens prancing about, we follow O'Rahilly down a long, tapered tunnel meant to shrink the visitor psychologically, at least to leprechaun size. The first room is a re-creation of the Giant's Causeway, the legendary hexagonal rock formation in County Antrim that in Irish folklore is prime hunting ground for leprechauns. Then we reach the museum's inner sanctum: the Rainbow Room, where the pristine arc of a rainbow has been fashioned out of velvety multicolored ropes. At the end of the rainbow, naturally, is where the leprechaun's crock of gold will be. (Construction was still under way at the time of my visit.) O'Rahilly marks the dimensions of the pot on the floor and conjures up its gleaming magic with a wave of his hand. "People will be able to see the nuggets," he explains, eyes sparkling. "But they will always be just out of reach." What, I venture, will represent the gold? O'Rahilly seems affronted. "Gold will represent the gold," he snaps. "We're going to have a quarter of a million euros of real gold. Who is going to come to a museum to see a pile of gold-painted pebbles? And anyway, leprechauns don't deal in anything else."
The lure of actual bullion is just one of the tactics the $6.8 million museum, which opened Wednesday, is using to try to change the way people view the leprechaun. A character in Irish folklore dating back to the 8th century a wily shoemaking sprite who enticed people with untold riches and then cunningly snatched them away at the last moment the leprechaun was transformed by advertisers and Hollywood producers in the 1950s and '60s into something altogether different: a gaudy, top-hat-wearing, pipe-smoking creature with a trademark piercing cry of "Top o' the morning!" The leprechaun made popular by Lucky Charms commercials and movies and musicals like Darby O'Gill and the Little People and Finian's Rainbow may be beloved in places like the U.S., but not in Ireland. "It is a derogatory symbol from an Irish perspective," says Brian Twomey, head of marketing and communications for Ireland's tourism bureau. "It is certainly not something that we would use."
O'Rahilly, a well-known Irish furniture designer, says he didn't set out with the goal of rehabilitating the image of the leprechaun. The idea for the museum simply came to him in a muggy, hungover moment of inspiration one morning in 2003. "I can't say it was a fairy visitation," he says with a chortle. "I was just drawn to them, or maybe they were drawn to me." With the Celtic Tiger economy booming at the time, he didn't have much difficulty finding investors to pony up the money to fund the venture. "Every pitch meeting would begin with 10 minutes of laughter," O'Rahilly recalls. "But once they began to reflect, they realized it could be viable."
Then the Irish economy collapsed in the global downturn, and people's attitudes toward the museum quickly changed. "Admission: one pot of gold, to be sure and begorrah," the Irish Sunday Tribune mocked in the headline of a derisive article about the museum last month. The blogosphere, too, has been fizzing with indignation in recent months. "Truly the Jedward of museums," railed one Twitter poster, referring to the Irish singing twins John and Edward Grimes, who appeared on Simon Cowell's The X Factor talent show in the U.K. and Ireland last year. (The twins became more famous for their garishly colored matching attire and bouncy dance moves than for their singing talent.) Analysts also feel the timing of the museum opening is unfortunate. "This would have been envisaged right at the nexus of our self-belief," says Tony Tracy, a leprechaun expert and a film lecturer at the University of Galway. "But it's now arriving just as the country has hit rock bottom, and the Irish are concerned that we're once again living up to the stereotype of the leprechaun."
O'Rahilly hopes the museum will stir up pride in Irish folklore rather than provoke anger at the price tag. What he's created, after all, is not a conventional museum but an evocative sculptural installation based on themes from leprechaun mythology. In addition to the Fort Knox crock, the museum has a rain room, where sound effects and lighting make it feel as if Ireland's most abundant natural resource is splattering down around visitors, and a leprechaun well that appears to be infinitely deep, thanks to the help of multimedia screens and video cameras. The poetry and lyricism of the exhibits, O'Rahilly believes, will captivate locals and tourists alike. "If it goes well, we may finally be able to welcome the leprechaun back to respectability," he says pithily. "And if it goes wrong, I will be the biggest fool in Christendom."