By Ray Lenarcic

As he headed back to the Dublin Home for Orphaned Boys, Denny O’Toole was beside himself. After spending ten hours selling long matches on what seemed like a thousand street corners, he had somehow lost his small pocketbook containing the day’s earnings. His eyes began to tear, in part from the cold March wind blowing into his face and in part from the fear of what was about to happen to him.

The sound of the black belt beating down on Denny echoed loudly throughout the orphanage’s dining room. “Get upstairs to bed right now-the rest of you brats, go with him.” Headmaster O’Leary’s punishment was severe. In addition to the licking, Denny was not only sent to bed without supper, but all the other boys had to as well.

That night as he lay in bed, Denny thought to himself that he couldn’t take it at the Home any longer. He’d had enough of the spankings, of being screamed at, of the cruddy food, and the long hours on the streets begging unfriendly people to buy cheap matches. He decided that in the morning, he’d run away.

Just as he was about to fall asleep, he heard a noise. It sounded like the door to the large bedroom was being unbolted. He jumped up and ran over to check. Praises to St. Patrick! It was open. Now’s the time to leave while the headmaster and his henchmen are sleeping, he thought. As he gathered his few possessions together, he heard a whispered voice. What are you doing, Denny?” It was his friend Kelly. “I’m out of here-the door is unlocked, and I’ve had enough of this place.” “Wait for me-I’m coming too.” By the time they were ready to leave, they had been joined by Greg, Gary, Ritchie, Rick, and Timmie. They all had had enough!

Quietly, the boys made their way down the hall and stairway. Just before reaching the outside door, Timmie sneezed. “Who’s there?” Mr. O’Leary had been awakened and could be heard running down the hall. The boys ran to the door, unlatched the bolt and entered the cobblestoned street. The headmaster was closing ground on them. Just as he reached the door, it suddenly slammed shut in his face and locked. “I’ll get you if it’s the last thing I ever do.” The boys turned and sped away down Flanagan Street.

After what seemed like forever, they reached the outskirts of Dublin. Near a blacksmith’s barn, Denny spotted a hay wagon. “Maybe we can get a free ride to the country. Mr. O’Leary will never find us.” After climbing onto the wagon, the boys disappeared under the hay and soon fell asleep.

Denny was jolted awake when the wagon’s wheels passed over a large rut in the road. Slowly, he pushed away the hay to see where he was. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The countryside was beautiful beyond words. Lush green fields were everywhere, and now and then a small, thatched-roof house would appear. The apple trees were in bloom, wildflowers blanketed the fields, and countless birds flew about, serenading the boys with their songs.

“Wake up, boys,” Denny whispered. “Catch a look at what’s out there.” Before the others could respond, the wagon came to a sudden halt. The boys could hear the driver talking to someone. “There’s nothing but hay in the wagon,” he said. “We’ll check to be sure,” another man answered. Through the straw, Denny saw four men in black and tan uniforms blocking the road. “Boys, we’ve got to make a run for it. The soldiers are coming after us.” Suddenly, hay was scattered all over the place as the orphans jumped out of the wagon. “Hey, you, come back here,” one of the soldiers shouted. “To the woods, boys, to the woods,” yelled Denny. He wasn’t about to let the English capture him or his friends.

The English. He had heard how they ruled Ireland for centuries, overtaxing the people and jailing those who spoke out against them. Irish people couldn’t vote, hold office, or get decent jobs. What was worse, the English government wouldn’t even let the Irish wear the shamrock or celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. No, Denny wasn’t about to let the black and tans get their hands on him.

The orphans reached a heavily wooded area only a few yards ahead of the soldiers. Just as the English were closing in, Kelly heard someone call his name. “Over here, Kelly. Follow me and you’ll all be safe.” Kelly looked in the direction of the voice. All he saw was a tree. “Over here, Kelly me boy, over here.” Kelly looked again but this time someone was there.

Standing beside the tree was a little man all dressed in green. He had a red face, short beard, pointed ears and shoes and couldn’t be more than three feet tall. “Come on, follow me before it’s too late!” “Denny, Denny,” called Kelly. “Tell the lads to follow me.” As he and the others followed the little man, Denny looked back to see where the soldiers were. He could hardly believe his eyes. The black and tans were on the ground thrashing around under a huge net. Where did that come from? “Come on, boys, hurry!” shouted the man. Denny turned and followed the others.

Soon, the group entered a large clearing. “Will you look at that,” said Gary. The clearing contained several small, stone houses, a well, a large outdoor fireplace and a small chapel. Running around everywhere were little men all dressed in green. As he looked on in amazement, Denny remembered something he had once been told. Legend had it that a group of little men called leprechauns lived deep in the forest many miles from Dublin. Blessed with magical powers, the leprechauns went through Ireland helping people in need and giving the English soldiers fits by playing all kinds of pranks on them.

No one knew from where the leprechauns came and no one had ever seen them before, but their deeds had given the Irish people both something to take pride in and something to laugh at when things weren’t going so well. The English might have controlled Ireland, but as long as the little men continued to perform their good services and play their practical jokes, the Irish people had reason to hope that someday, like the leprechauns, they too would be free.

“Come over to my place and have some supper. You boys must be starving,” said the man who had saved them from the soldiers. Soon, the boys had gathered around the table and were digging into a meal consisting of mulligan stew, soda bread, porridge and milk. After eating, Denny and the boys walked over to a large stone fireplace to warm themselves. “Do you mind if we ask you some questions?” Denny inquired. “No, of course not,” the leprechaun answered.

The remainder of the evening proved to be a real learning experience for the boys. They found out that the man who came to their aid was named Mike. They learned that he was a 242-year-old leprechaun. When Ritchie asked him about his origins, a fascinating tale unfolded.

“A long time ago, I was an orphan like yourselves,” stated Mike. “One day, meself and the other guys decided that we had enough of the bad food and punishment, so we ran away to the country. When the police were sent after us, we escaped to these woods. Soon we were starving and thinking that we were about to die, we started praying. Suddenly, a light appeared. It was so bright that we all had to shield our eyes. A gentle voice spoke to us. It told us that if we promised to help Irish people in need and keep them all laughing, we would be provided with all the food we wanted and given long, healthy lives. Because the carefree, happy way of children is so precious, we were also told that we would keep our childish nature and stay as small as we are. That’s why even though we have the appearance of grown men we are so little.

“We were then told,” Mike went on, “that we would always wear green because green is the color of things that represent life; green grass breaking through the ground in the spring, leaves budding in the trees, the eyes of a young colleen and a sparkling lake in County Kerry. The color green should always remind us of how important it is to be happy, even when things go badly, and how no one or thing can ever truly take our freedom away from us. By the way, if you’re wondering about the shamrock, we wear it because the three leaves remind us of our faith.

Mike went on to relate that the leprechauns believed St. Patrick himself had spoken to them that day long ago. He mentioned that leprechaun was an old, old word from a language which no longer was spoken. It meant “one who loves life.” He continued by saying that there were hundreds of leprechauns throughout Ireland and that all had been orphans at one time.

“Did you help us out of the orphanage?” asked little Greg, as certain things began to fall into place; like Denny’s door suddenly unlocking and the outside door slamming into Mr. O’Leary’s face. Like the hay wagon being located in the right place at the right time and the net falling on the soldiers.

“Yes, I did,” Mike replied. “Leprechauns have certain powers, like making ourselves invisible. That’s why you never saw me.” With the questioning over, the boys quietly discussed their future. They had no idea what to do. “Would you like to join us?” “Join you?” answered the boys. “Yes. We need help. Me and the others are getting a little old, you know, and would like more time to ourselves. Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, the only day that we can perform the changing ceremony, so you’d better make up your minds soon.” There was a twinkle in Mike’s eyes.

“What do you mean by changing ceremony?” asked Rickie. “During the changing ceremony you’re changed from a little boy into a leprechaun by drinking a magic potion. Then you’ll be sent to school where you’ll learn the tricks of the trade, like disappearing when necessary or turning a man’s beer into vinegar.” The boys laughed aloud at the thought of a man drinking a glass of that bitter stuff instead of ale. “Let’s join,” shouted Denny. “We have no life back in the orphanage.” “We’re with you, Denny!” screamed the boys.

If you ever happen to go to Ireland some day and something strange happens to you like discovering that you have on two different colored socks or that your pockets are filled with mulligan stew, you’ll know that the leprechauns are at it again. As long as there are faces that need smiles or stomachs that need feeding, as long as there is any part of Ireland that needs freeing, Denny and his friends will be only a shamrock away.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!