In celebration of Saint Patrick's Day I got in touch with Mark Ross, the media and public-relations officer for Portland Parks & Recreation, to learn a bit more about how the city interacts with its officially recognized leprechaun population.
A leprechaun lives here. Image via Wikicommons
In 1948, Oregon Journal columnist Dick Fagan reported a leprechaun sighting in his newspaper. According to Fagan's article, which over the years has become solid lore in Portland, the reporter's office window looked out over a roadway where the city had long ago dug a hole to put up a lamppost but forgotten it and left it to sprout weeds. Fagan, presumably on slow news days, started taking jaunts out to the middle of the street to plant flowers and tend the two-foot-diameter circular plot. Then, one day he saw a leprechaun rooting around in his flowers, ran out to the street, caught him, and was offered a wish. He wished for a new park, and the mischievous sprite offered him his own home: the fallow lamppost hole. So Fagan took it and christened the hole "Mill Ends Park" (named after the column in which he announced the whole affair), the largest leprechaun colony west of Ireland.
This is a matter of record as much as whimsy. Whether it was a solid bit or a half honest belief, Fagan kept up the story of the leprechaun—whose name has been reported as both Patrick and Dennis O'Toole—in his self-proclaimed park for years. The creature and his invisible clan, known only to Fagan, would occasionally pop up in his column, once issuing a threat of magical retribution through the Oregon Journal against the mayor for his 11:00 PM park curfew plan. By the time of his death, in 1969, Fagan had repeated the story enough that the legend of the O'Toole leprechaun colony and the fact that this abandoned lamppost was a park just stuck. It stuck so well that in 1976 the City of Portland labeled the plot an official park.
At the park's inauguration, it was clear that the city was mostly into the tongue-in-cheek novelty of designating the world's official smallest park. The first iteration of the space featured a butterfly swimming pool and a mini Ferris wheel lowered into the plot by a full-sized crane. But, as Portland Parks & Recreation press officer Mark Ross admits, "everything about the history of the park was taken into consideration as we incorporated it as part of our properties." And that involved the recognition of the myth of the O'Toole clan as part of the park and its history.
The world's smallest Occupy protest. Photo via Wikicommons
For a few decades the park was a hub not just for bizarre little stories—like the smallest Occupy protest in 2011—but for St. Patrick's Day celebrations in which city and community officials would gather and honor the lore of the city's leprechaun colony. But after construction on Southwest Naito Parkway in 2006 required the relocation of the park (into a flowerpot outside Portland's World Trade Center), the celebrations disappeared. The last official leprechaun-loving shindig was in 2007, when the park was returned to its original posthole. But while the memory of O'Toole may be fading in popular memory, the city still occasionally acknowledges the possible existence of leprechauns.
"I'm not aware of anyone who's ever seen one," Ross told me, "although their lore is a lot more visible than the actual leprechauns. [Fagan] was not a park staffer, and I've never had the opportunity of talking to them myself. If a leprechaun ever does decide to do an interview, we'd hope that he'd go through the proper media-relations channel for the bureau."
Asked whether or not the Parks & Recreation team approves of a leprechaun living in a city park day and night, Ross said, "I'm not sure if he has the permits that would be required for that. It'd be nice to talk about it and see how we could enhance his standard of living." Then, no doubt recalling Fagan's article on the curfew and O'Toole's threatened curse, he added, "I believe there's actually a grandfather clause for him, yes."
While the diameter of Mill Ends Park is quite small, leprechauns are magical, making it difficult to put an official number on the hole's population. "There has not been a census," Ross told me. "We'd love to do one. The resources we have prevent that for now. Obviously, we want to make sure there aren't too many mythical creatures crowding an actual space."
Marginalized populations throughout the world face injustice and hardships every day that the privileged among us would find difficult to imagine. Leprechauns are no exception, and I asked Ross whether or not the encroachment of other mythical creatures into a leprechaun colony was a concern for the city that recognized the settlement. He compared the lamppost hole to Bon Temps, Louisiana: "You know, we wouldn't want to end up like True Blood, where every single day you find a new character or... what's next, shape-shifters, werewolves, benevolent vampires? You have to draw the line somewhere."
But most importantly for the safety and security of America's sole officially recognized leprechaun colony cum world's smallest park, when asked whether or not the presence of leprechauns would prevent the city from developing or reappropriating the parkland in the future, Ross hedged: "That's a policy question that would have to go before council and involve a public process for sure. We haven't ever had to face that question before. But again, if the leprechauns have any input, we'd be happy to hear it."
If the day ever comes that Portland decides to renege on its honorable protection of the O'Toole clan's homestead in Mill Ends Park, let the city be held accountable: They must make all efforts to bring their magical wards to the table for negotiations, compensation, and resettlement. And if they do not, then they shall surely face the curse of a leprechaun who, by their own accepted lore, likes to trick quirky old reporters and threaten the city for curfew policies. Tread carefully, Stumptown, for ye know not the power of leprechaun magics.