The Case of the Liverpool Leprechauns

Nigel Watson
Magonia 18, January 1985

Exceptional things were happening in Liverpool during 1964. When the Beatles returned to the city on 10th July for the premier of their first film A Hard Day’s Night, 150,000 people lined the streets to greet them. A less well known fact is that a few days earlier thousands of children, and curious adults, went hunting for leprechauns in a Liverpool park.

This incident is of interest because of the rapid spread of the rumour and because it appears that the rumour was restricted to school children, and was especially strong among pupils of Roman Catholic schools in the area. According to the Liverpool Daily Post dated 2nd July 1964, the leprechauns were first seen on the night of Tuesday 30th June. Nobody knew how the rumour started, but one nine-year-old boy told the Post reporter, Don McKinley that “last night I saw little men in white hats throwing stones and mud at each other on the bowling green. Honest mister, I did.”

The centre of this leprechaun activity was the bowling green in Jubilee Park, which is to the east of the city centre in the Edge Lane district. On the second night of the scare, 1st July, the bowling green was so crowded that the police had to clear the park and guard it from the marauding leprechaun hunters who were prone to tear up plants and turf in their search for the little creatures.

A rather bewildered Irish park constable, James Nolan, who had to wear a crash helmet to protect himself from the children’s stone throwing, told the reporter that:
“This all started on Tuesday. How I just don’t know, but the sooner it ends the better. Stones have been thrown on the bowling green and for the second night running no-one has been able to play. The kids just won’t go away. Some swear they have seen leprechauns. The story has gone round and now we are being besieged with leprechaun hunters.”
Such was the violence of their search that the police had to set up a temporary first-aid shelter to treat at least a dozen children who suffered from cuts and bruises.

The Liverpool Echo and Evening Express for the 2nd July 1964 described the strange visitors as: “little green men in white hats throwing stones and tiny clods of earth at one another.”

The ‘little green men’ part of the story was possibly inspired by the testimony of a Crosby [north of Liverpool] woman who said that on the 1st July, she had seen: “strange objects glistening in the sky whizzing over the river [Mersey] to the city from the Irish Sea.”

This, apparently, explained how the leprechauns managed to emigrate from 'auld Ireland', though it was more likely a tongue-in-cheek addition by the editorial staff in order to make a ‘neat’ story. This supposition is supported by the fact that no exact date nor any information about the witness was given, and the local paper for the Crosby district did not report anything of this nature to its readers. It is also worth noting that the leprechaun hunt had already been going on for two days before this report was published, so the newspapers cannot be regarded as the originators of this scare.

However, the newspaper reports could well have inspired or fuelled a second leprechaun panic in the Liverpool area a few days later. Details of this will be given later in this text, but for the time being it is interesting to see that leprechauns were associated with UFOs in the public mind six years before the British publication of Jacques Vallée’s book Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers.

The Liverpool Leprechauns could have remained in our files as yet another datum of the ‘damned’ if it had not been for certain revelations published in the 26th January 1982 edition of the Liverpool Echo [3]. In this report a man called Brian Jones claimed he was responsible for the scare when he started to tidy his grandfather’s garden in Edge Lane, which backed onto the park. He wore some clothes suitable for gardening, which comprised a red waistcoat, a pair of navy-blue trousers, Wellington boots, a denim shirt and a woollen hat with a red bobble on it. As he sucked on his pipe, no doubt reflecting upon his sartorial elegance, he saw some children sitting on the ten foot high wall which separated the garden from the park. He heard one of the children say “It’s a leprechaun”.

Realising that his short stature, emphasised by the height of his grandfather’s weeds, and his extraordinary clothing, gave the children this impression, he decided to capitalise on their deluded perception. So he claims that: “I bounded into view, babbling made-up words, I jumped up and down, picked up turfs and threw them at the children.” Not surprisingly the children ran away in a ‘blind panic’.

The next evening he was again in his grandfather’s garden when he heard the noise of a crowd in the adjacent park. Looking over the wall he saw 300 children on top of a covered reservoir which gave them a good view of the bowling green. On seeing him they shouted: “There he is. There’s the leprechaun!” However, the children remained where they were, so for the next hour Brian entertained them by angrily shaking his fist at them and by tossing turfs into the air.

Afterwards he changed his clothes and visited the park to find out the reaction to his leprechaun impersonation. Here he found children boasting that they had seen two leprechauns, although some had to top this by saying they had seen six, or more!

The next day, a Saturday (according to Brian), crowds of children and adults went to the house in Edge Lane in search of the little people. Despite the efforts of the police the crowds did not disperse until after 11 o’clock at night. In the next two weeks children raided the garden in their search for the little people, causing damage to a shed and the garden itself. Things came to a head when Brian overheard two boys saying that they planned to shoot the leprechauns with an air rifle and deposit the bodies in jam-jars to prove to their teachers that the story was not a figment of their imaginations.

At this juncture Brian decided that something had to be done, so for three evenings he put on his leprechaun – act in the garden of an empty house six doors from his grandfather’s home. This did the trick so effectively that within a couple of months the city council had to demolish the house because of the devastation caused by leprechaun hunters.

Is Brian’s belated confession then the solution to the great Liverpool leprechaun panic? More than a brief glance at his statements will show that he simply makes matters more complicated rather than clearing them up. His story is full of contradictions and errors when compared with the contemporary press reports. For a start, Brian claims that the leprechauns were first seen on Thursday and Friday, and that on the Saturday crowds gathered near his grandfather’s home; yet the press tells us that the creatures were first seen on Tuesday, 30th June. Perhaps with the passage of time he just forgot the correct days and dates of the sightings, and just remembered the dates of the newspaper reports?

It seems odd that the newspaper descriptions of the leprechauns do not tally with Mr Jones’s description of his elegant outfit. None of the children noticed his red waistcoat, the red bobble on his hat, his navy trousers or his denim shirt. The ten-foot-high wall is of interest too. It could not have been the most simple thing in the world to climb, either for the children, or particularly for Mr Jones considering his short height and Wellington boots.

It is also difficult to understand why the children on the second day did not approach the wall in large numbers and scale it in order to catch the ‘leprechaun’. The children of Liverpool are not normally that shy! Furthermore, all the children’s reports speak specifically of leprechauns in Jubilee Park and bowling green: there was no mention of any sightings in private gardens – and many of the children said they saw more than one creature. A search through the two Liverpool daily newspapers for the period covering July, August and September did not reveal any more reports of leprechauns seen in the neighbourhood of Jubilee Park, and no mention of the rather newsworthy event of a house being demolished through the depredations of their hunters.

For these reasons we suspect that Brian Jones might be mistaken in his belief that he was responsible for starting this panic: perhaps after twenty years two separate events have become confused.

Whatever the explanation for the start of the rumour, it is noteworthy that it spread very quickly, and generated sufficient interest for substantial crowds, including many adults, to gather in the park. It is also intriguing to see the injection of the UFO sighting into this context, even if it was a humorous attempt at an explanation for the presence of the leprechauns. In addition, the children who wished to insert the entities into a jam-jar remind us of those ufologists who believe (or hope) that the USAF has succeeded in preserving bottles or frozen ‘little green men’

No sooner had the Liverpool rumours subsided than a similar scare erupted several miles to the north-east of the city in the overspill town of Kirkby. The Kirkby Reporter on the 17th July 1964 [4] featured the following story, under the headline “Little Folk – and ‘Flying Saucers”: 
Flying saucers and leprechauns came to Kirkby last week – at least according to local children. What the connection was the children were not quite sure, but scores of excited youngsters invaded the Reporter offices on Friday, eager to tell they had seen both these things.

A “strange object in the sky”, which changed the colour of its lights from red to silver, and was moving slowly at first, then very fast, was their description of the flying saucer.

The ‘flying saucer’ faction vied with the ‘leprechaun’ group for colourful descriptions. About eight inches high, with red and green tunics, and knee-breeches, thus the ‘little people were described. And, of course, they spoke with a strong Irish brogue.

Origin of the wee folk remains a mystery, but so convinced were the children that hundreds of them plagued the vicar of Kirkby (Rev. J. Lawton) by invading St. Chad’s churchyard in search of the little people. At times the numbers were such that the police had to chase the children away.
In the Liverpool Echo, 13th July 1964 [5] was the first account of scores of children searching the churchyard at St Chad’s for leprechauns. After what was described as two days of hectic activity, which probably began on Friday, 10th July, a relieved Rev. Canon John Lawton told the Echo’s reporter on the night of Sunday, 12th July, that: “The children seem to have been convinced at last that there are no leprechauns.” During the same period, children had also searched the grounds of St Marie’s Roman Catholic School and Mother of God Church, Northwood, Kirkby [5].

In many ways this panic seems to have been a continuation of the primary rumours originating in Liverpool. We should note that they could have been influenced by many reports from the general Liverpool area of UFO activity that July, which by their very quantity might have linked leprechauns with UFOs more firmly in the minds of the Kirkby children. Indeed, we might even speculate that the ‘original’ Liverpool rumours were inspired by a report in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Journal (9th June 1964), which may have reached some of the national or regional press. Flying Saucer Review, vol. 10, no. 5, page 18 [6,7] reproduced the following report from that paper:
Flashes of light … loud buzzes in the night … little green men chasing each other round haystacks … egg-shaped flying saucers … the leprechauns aren’t loose and it’s no Irishman who is telling this tale – just the good people of Felling. For stories are going around Learn Lane Estate that flying spacemen in egg-shaped flying saucers are using the area for manoeuvres. So persistent are the stories that a full scale investigation has been launched by one organisation.

And the little green men? They were seen by 14-year-old David Wilson. He said: “I saw several small green creatures about two feet high running around a haystack on a farm near the estate.” But not everyone believes the stories. Last night Mr M. Coates, headmaster of Roman Road junior school, denied that he had called a special assembly of pupils to discuss the little green man, or that he had told the children to stay away from the farm. He said: “There is no truth at all in these silly rumours.”
Obviously Brian Jones could not have been responsible for all of these scares. So if he was not the cause of them, who or what was? In the case of the Liverpool happenings it could be argued that a ‘tall story’ got circulated at a local school and rapidly spread by word of mouth. The stimulus could have been the factors already discussed, or might have been an invented story that came to be regarded as relating to a real event. We must remember that older children are more receptive to ‘fantastic’ ideas and situations which might be regarded as a rejection of the assumptions of their parents and teachers about the nature of reality [8].

Freud claimed that fantasies are mental constructs of the imagination, liberated from the constraints of reality, and that: “the motive forces of fantasies are unsatisfied wishes, and every single fantasy is the fulfilment of a wish, a correction of unsatisfying reality.” [9]

Indeed, we can say that because most of the children attended Roman Catholic schools and (in the Liverpool and Kirkby areas at least) were most likely of Irish descent, their Irish cultural background might well be regarded as a strong influences on the way such wishes might be expressed. Leprechauns play an important role in Irish folklore, and Kathrine Briggs [10] reminds us that the leprechaun was a fairy cobbler who lived underground beneath a fairy hill. Attempts at capturing him always failed. Another legend asserts that a boy with fairy blood in his veins was able to recover treasure from a cave guarded by the leprechaun.

Can this legend, or some thin remnant of it, have been the reason why the children so vigorously sought to discover the leprechaun? Or was the rumour just an excuse for vandalism and some excitement? As with most aspects of folklore, and ufology, such rumours can be generated and sustained by a multitude of purposes and reasons.

In this case we have attempted to outline some of the difficulties involved in arriving at or accepting any ‘face value’ explanation of a set of rumours which consist of a psychologically and sociologically complex pattern of behaviour.

Although these rumours were short-lived (although the newspaper accounts which gave this impression may be false. It is difficult to guess how long such rumours may continue to bubble beneath the level of media attention), the same urges for excitement and change from old ways of viewing the world can also be expressed by young people via pop music. It may be that the blossoming of ‘Merseybeat’ at that place and time was a manifestation of urges not far removed from those which brought the Liverpool Leprechaun into ‘reality’.

  1. Liverpool Daily Post, Thursday, 2nd July 1964.
  2. Liverpool Echo, Thursday, 2nd July 1964.
  3. Echo, 26th Jan. 1982.
  4. Kirkby Reporter, Friday, 17th July 1964.
  5. Echo, Monday, 13th July 1964.6. Journal (Newcastle), 9th lung 1964.
  6. Flying Saucer Review, vol.10, no.5., p.18.
  7. See for instance ‘Enigma Variations’ in Fortean Times 33, or the articles on Paul Bennet in MUFON New Series 11 and 12.
  8. FREUD, 5. (1900) ‘Creative Writers and Day Dreaming’ in Creativity, P. E. Vernon (ed.), Penguin, 1970.
  9. BRIGGS, K. A Dictionary of Fairies.

Alternative viewpoints on the Liverpool Leprechauns by Granville Oldroyd and Ian S. Cresswell

We feel that there is a very real danger of making the mechanisms at work behind Liverpool leprechauns more complicated than need by be the over-use of complex sociological theories when more simple and easy to understand explanations are near at hand. We would rather suggest that the more likely cause behind this series of events was rumour which very quickly spread within the restricted confines of school, playground and neighbour-hood, which got out of hand and spread to other groups of children within the Liverpool area, before finally becoming just another silly season story and dying out.
Word of mouth is one of the quickest ways of spreading such stories.Regarding the deeper psychological motivations behind the spread and belief of this story, there are many possible factors which could have played a part, but we see limits to this line of thinking. It is hard to see just what the significance the ‘Merseybeat’ mania had on the leprechaun rumours, and we doubt that the rumours were merely an excuse for malicious damage. It is also difficult to accept that the rumours were solely ‘wish-fulfilment’, or to put the incident down to an adolescent rebellion against the acceptable viewpoint of the adult majority.

There often appears to be a fertile ground in which the seeds of rumour may be sown. Perhaps in this incident it was the Roman Catholic background of many of the children, and the real possibility that the largest group of them were of Irish ancestry. This being so, the initial story of the leprechauns would strike a responsive note in their cultural background. This does seem to be more likely that any belief in a link between leprechauns and UFOs.Perhaps this whole incident may be called a modern day fairy story, which in the fullness of time could have become a local legend. Indeed, have similar rumours been responsible for the corpus of fairy belief, a ‘mere rumour’ being handed down over the years? This may not be as strange as one might think, as rumour has often been shown to be the agency for the production of eye-witness accounts to events which have not taken place.

Last Words, by Nigel Watson

In reply to those comments, I would agree that it would be nice to dispense with “complex sociological theories”, but by calling the collective behaviour of the type displayed by the children involved in the hunt for leprechauns ‘just’ a rumour does not help us very much. We have to find out why this rumour had such a powerful influence. Certainly the Roman Catholic background of the children could have been an important factor, but that does not exclude the possibility that wish-fulfilment or rejection of consensus reality, boredom or mischievousness, were not equally significant factors.I was not attempting to show that ‘Merseybeat’ had any direct influence on the leprechaun rumours. My intention was to show that at approximately the same time and place there was a blossoming of popular music which, for the performers and audience, was a vehicle for the expression of emotions which are normally kept under check.

Common to both the leprechaun rumour and popular music trends are the “spontaneity, transitriness and volatility. It is these properties rather than the irrational behaviour of individuals under the sway of collective forces or the pressures of ‘group influence’ as such that set the phenomena of collective behaviour apart…” [K. and G. E. Lang, 'Collective Dynamics: Process and Form', in Human Behaviour and Social Processes, RKP, 1971]

Obviously, we could argue about the causal, functional and cognitive aspects of the leprechaun hunts for several more pages without resolving the matter. Instead, I hope that we can examine some of these issues in more detail in futures studies of phantom airship and UFO ‘panics’.

Final Last Words by John Rimmer.

On the basis that this is not a private fight and anyone may join in, I would like to add one or two comments as a Liverpudlian who was living just two miles away from the events described, but regrettably remained blissfully unaware of them, I think both sides may be overplaying the question of the religious background of the children involved. Certainly, Liverpool has a high proportion of Roman Catholics, the highest of any major city in the UK, as a result of the massive Irish immigration during the nineteenth century.

Although it would certainly be probable that any group of schoolchildren in Kirkby would be predominantly Roman Catholic, this would not necessary be the case in the Edge Lane district (unless, of course a Roman Catholic school was specifically mentioned in the account). Although most Liverpool Catholics are of Irish origin, it must be remembered that such families were, by the time of these events, fourth or fifth generation immigrants, and it is a matter of considerable doubt just how commonplace folk tales and legends of 'Auld Ireland' were around the firesides of Liverpool in 1964.

I think the point raised about the Merseybeat phenomenon is valid. This had a tremendous social effect in Liverpool, not just restricted to teenagers. In many ways this was a period of massive social change in the city, which has yet to be adequately charted by social historians.

Following the first online publication of this article in 1999, Magonia received a number of fascinating comments from people who were involved in the 'leprechaun panic' at the time:

I remember the story well as I have a scar as a constant reminder of the event. We, the kids from St Marie’s, Kirkby, went en masse into the church and as we hunted the little people. Some bright spark shouted that they were coming out after us. Panic ensued and as we all fled quicker than we entered a boy who is sadly no longer with us swung the church gate in his haste to escape, and I was hit on the forehead by the metal cross on it. The lad, Danny Callahan didn't even know he had injured me as he was well up the street and along Elric Walk where I lived. I had to have my head stitched by Dr Cole. As far as I know I am the only person injured by the little visitors. Unless you know different. - Eddie McArdle

Eddie McArdle’s comment that “we hunted the little people” is a particularly interesting one, because the Liverpool leprechaun case clearly fits into the category of what folklorists have termed ‘children’s hunts’ – spontaneous, mob-handed searches for supposed paranormal entities such as ghosts or vampires. Magonia readers will not be surprised to know that the object of the hunts varies with time and fashion – in the 1930s, in Glasgow, there were several that involved searches for Spring-heeled Jack. The fact that Liverpool has and had a large population of Irish descent was most likely a factor in determining the object of the hunt in this case.

For more on the subject of children’s hunts, I highly recommend an important paper by Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwall, ‘Hunting the monster with iron teeth’, in Bennett and Smith, Monsters With Iron Teeth: Perspectives on Contemporary Legend vol.3 (Sheffield Academic Press, 1988) pp.115-137. - Mike Dash

Subject :- Constable Jim Nolan, Liverpool Park Police -disbanded 1972

I had the pleasure of being a police officer with Jim Nolan. In 1968 at 19 years of aged I joined the Liverpool Parks Police and was sworn as a Constable.The Liverpool Parks Police was disbanded in 1972 under national police reforms.

In 1969 I worked with Jim till his death. Jim had been a WW2 war hero, was as strong as an ox, coupled with a buckets of Liverpool humour – he was not Irish as described. His patrol duty was in full police uniform and helmet – as I did. At the time of the incident he was one of some 50 City and Parks Police Officers who patrolled the city on blue coloured Vespa scooters with a fixed radio mounted on it – in those days it was state of the art in police communications.

In 1964 I was like most Liverpool kids visited places such as to the Cavern and followed the Beatle music. Unusual news came one evening via the media of Granada TV – which lead me and some dozen of my mates from Sparrow Hall to head to Kensington Park on our bikes. We left Sparrow Hall to see “The Irish Little People ” that the Granada TV ” presenters had spoken about - Bill Grundy or was it Brian Trueman who broke the news?

So off we to find them – I had a dog and two rabbits, catch one of those “Little People” would be no problem and I could keep in the Rabbit Hutch.

I hold a picture of Constable Jim Nolan on parade with other members of the Liverpool Parks Police – complete with helmet. Nolan told me it was a bit of fun and he had made the story up- the kids did the rest

His antics came to the notice of Police Superintendent John Buchanan LLB, who was head Constable of the Liverpool Parks Police – Constable Nolan was warned off and to keep his mouth shut. The exercise had resulted in many officers having to work overtime – and as Nolan said “The oney Came in handy with Christmas coming up.”

“Rest in Peace Constable Jim Nolan and all those men who served in the Liverpool Parks Police from 1850 to 1972″ -- John Hutchinson

As a child, living in Fairfield, I remember the “sightings” in the park in Kensington. I remember what seemed like thousands of kids congregating at the park and eventually getting chased off by the police. I was six at the time so the exact details are not totally clear in my memory banks but I do recall going to the park with my brother and sister along with the rest of the kids in the area. Everyone was excited about the prospect of seeing a leprechaun.

Many years later, about 1983, I recall reading a story in a magazine, (“Revellie” or something similar) which indicated that the story started when some “circus folk” of the short variety were lodging in a house close by the park at the time. Some school children spotted them in the garden, and yes this garden was overgrown with tall overgrown grass and weeds, which gave the impression they were even shorter. So the story spread that the “little folk” were living in the park.

Not sure of the “facts” from this story but this seems like another feasible explanation to add to the growing list. - Mike S.

I was one of the school children that saw those leprechauns I attended brae street school and we all saw them popping in and out of a window overlooking the school yard , there were about 4 of them all tiny dressed like a school book idea of a typical gnome and they sat swinging their legs on the window ledge getting in and out. What they were I don’t know I only know what they looked like. I’d love to know the truth!!! - Linda tahmasebi

I laughed out loud when I found this site, for years I thought i imagined it all! I remember the siege of St Marys church when the police and Father Rose (or Father Spain) appealed for calm. I was one of the huge crowd of children shouting out “there they are”

Someone said they had crossed the road into St Marys infants school and were now hiding in the lockers (small cube-like cupboards then) I never slept for days, and have had a fear of these type of cupboards to this day, which is still tested as my grandchildren’s nursery school use something similar. Ah memories. - bri

Aged 9, I was one of the swarm of children who invaded St Chads in Kirkby. I was also a pupil at St Marie's school. I too had come to think that this event was a figment of my imagination. I was not aware that the mass psychology of the events involved Catholic children predominantly, though it does not surprise me. Religious education in school was full of stories about children being favoured by visitations: Lourdes and Fatima being two of the better known examples. However why leprechauns were involved and not something more pious is a mystery to me now. It was then too. - Chris Jones