When Mad Sweeney introduces himself to Shadow Moon as a leprechaun in American Gods, he is being totally serious – even though, as Shadow points out, mythical Irish fairies are usually thought of as much shorter.
This Old God, played by Orange is the New Black’s Pablo Schreiber in the Amazon series, can pull gold coins out of thin air. He loves to provoke, he loves to drink, and he loves a fight. Unfortunately he’s a little down on his luck these days, struggling to find his place in modern America.
What legend is Mad Sweeney based on?
Mad Sweeney, loyal to Mr Wednesday, is a kind of Irish sprite. Other characters in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods mention the idea that it was an Irish “joke” to refer to leprechauns as little people, because they were actually taller than most.
In the book we learn that Mad Sweeney is originally from Ireland, where he was the guardian of a sacred rock more than three thousand years ago. He was brought to America by a girl from Bantry Bay.
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The name Mad Sweeney could have been taken from Irish medieval story, Buile Suibhne (The Frenzy of Sweeney), where Suibhne mac Colmain, ruler of a kingdom in northern Ireland, attacks a saint and is driven mad by a curse. He enters a life of naked wandering across the country until he is finally murdered.
This “Sweeney” from the Buile Suibhne tale would not have been considered a leprechaun. Leprechauns appeared in later folklore and were usually described or pictured as little mischievous bearded men, with solitary habits and a hidden pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The idea of the leprechaun may be derived from the Tuatha Dé Danann, a supernatural race in Irish mythology connected with the main deities of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland. They dwell in the Otherworld but interact with humans.
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American Gods is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes available every week. Episodes air on US channel Starz on Sunday nights
This article was originally published in 2017