St. Patrick and the Snakes of IrelandSt. Patrick and the Snakes of Ireland

St. Patrick and the Snakes of Ireland

Did St. Patrick banish all snakes from Ireland back in the 5th century? Well, not exactly.

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day every year, even if you live far from Ireland. You might be of Irish descent and feel a deep and abiding connection to the Emerald Isle. Or you might live in a big city with a substantial Irish community – places like Boston and Toronto and Sydney that mark March 17 (or a date close to it) with parades, glasses of green beer, and political speechifying.


What’s not to celebrate? Ireland has it all: great people, fascinating history, terrific music, an amazing literary tradition, verdant countryside, breathtaking seascapes, and much more.


But do you know what Ireland doesn’t have?


Snakes, that’s what.


If you were to poll people who are afflicted by ophidiophobia (excessive fear of snakes), you’d probably learn that Ireland is among their favorite travel destinations. Not only can they enjoy a nice hike in the Irish countryside whilst contemplating their favorite W. B. Yeats poems, but they can do it without happening upon a literal snake in the grass.

Water is a defining feature of Ireland. See the many ways it influences Irish life and culture in MagellanTV's Along Irish Shores. 


St. Patrick Finds His Calling

So where are all the Irish snakes? Well, that brings us back to St. Patrick.


The son of a Christian deacon in Britain in the 5th century, Patrick was taken by raiders to Ireland when he was 16 years of age as a slave. He escaped after several years and returned to his family to follow in his father’s vocation. Long story short, Patrick eventually received a letter from an acquaintance in Ireland calling upon him to return to the land where he had been enslaved – which, with some trepidation, he did.


Upon arriving back in Ireland, Patrick threw himself into his calling with gusto, baptizing  converts to Christianity in large numbers, placating Celtic tribal leaders who were none too pleased with his activities, and generally earning the respect and gratitude of multitudes – or at least of a goodly number of godly people.


As legend has it, one day, whilst engaged in his virtuous works, Patrick was set upon by a bunch of snakes. Serpents, of course, had had a rather sketchy reputation since a certain incident in biblical Eden of which Patrick was well aware, and he wasn’t inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the slithering creatures. So, he cast them into the sea – and not just those that were at him, but all the snakes across the lovely isle.


The Serpentine Truth

The story of St. Patrick’s banishment of the snakes is entertaining and probably goes down even better with a couple of pints of green beer. It is, of course, just a tale – and a rather tall one at that. But many would argue that it is also an allegory, with the snakes representing the pagan traditions of pre-Christian Ireland that were cast aside (or at least hidden away).


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So, if St. Patrick isn’t responsible for the absence of snakes in Ireland, what is? The answer is fairly straightforward: Ireland was separated from mainland Europe at the end of the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago. A few snake species managed to establish themselves in Britain, but they couldn’t make it across the Irish Sea. Ireland, you see, was simply an island too far.



Title Image credit: Kevin J. Martin using DALL-E


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