St. Patrick and the snakes

St. Patrick. Photo by Nheyob on Wikipedia.

Gather around, friends. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m going to tell you a story…

Once upon a time, in this case the 5th century, a religious man who would one day be known as St. Patrick went to Ireland. He started converting the local druidic people to Christianity, baptizing thousands of people and building churches. He was a busy guy.

One day, St. Patrick decided to take part in a 40-day fast for Lent. But in the middle of his fast, disaster struck: he was attacked by snakes! Don’t worry, St. Patrick was just fine. In response to the snakes, he struck his staff on the ground and drove literally all of the snakes in Ireland into the ocean. Ireland was officially snake-free and remains to this day as one of the few places where there are no wild snakes.

There’s the catch, though:


No Irish snakes?

It’s true. Snakes are very very unlikely to have been living in Ireland when St. Patrick was around. There are no snakes to be found in Ireland’s fossil record, suggesting that snakes have never lived there.


Well, during the latest ice age, Ireland was literally just a sheet of ice. Snakes, being cold-blooded, cannot survive without heat to warm their bodies and keep their organs running. So, an ice cube Ireland was not a place they would want to live (and, to be fair, nothing else really wanted to live on a sheet of ice either).

The ice eventually melted, so plants and animals eventually started to colonize Ireland from mainland Europe. These are plants and animals that were able to cross the English Channel: think seeds blown by the wind, birds / insects flying, etc. Some plants and animals were also brought by humans for hunting and farming.

But since people weren’t really into eating snakes, they didn’t make it on the list of things to bring over the English Channel by early settlers. And while some (specifically, three) species of snakes did manage to cross the English Channel and made it to Britain, none of them were able to swim to Ireland. The waters are too cold for snakes to be able to successfully cross.

So yeah. No snakes in Ireland. They literally just couldn’t get over the water.

Are there still no snakes in Ireland?

Yep! Snakes still haven’t been able to make it to Ireland. In fact, Ireland only has one native reptile at all: the viviparous lizard, also known as the common lizard.

Viviparous lizard. Photo by gailhampshire on Flickr.

This lizard is pretty cool. They are able to live farther north than any other species of non-marine reptile, with a range that will extend into the subarctic. How? Individuals will literally freeze and enter a “supercooled” state during winter, thawing during the spring with no issues.

Viviparous lizards are also, well, viviparous. This means that they will give birth to live young, and, indeed, most of them do. The only populations of viviparous lizards that lay eggs live in northern Spain and southwest France.

There’s one more reptile you might see in Ireland besides the viviparous lizard: the slow worm. This reptile is semifossorial, which means it is adapted to living underground. The slow worm spends a lot of their time hiding under objects. They can also shed their tails and regrow them when attacked by predators. The slow worm not native to Ireland and is believed to have been illegally introduced in the 1970s. They’ve only been spotted in parts of County Clare, mainly in the Burren region.

Slow worm, a legless lizard. Photo from Wikipedia.

So…what about St. Patrick?

The short answer: it’s complicated.

The longer answer: we have some ideas, but we know almost certainly that St. Patrick was not literally casting snakes out of Ireland.

Instead, the snakes are more likely to be an allegory or metaphor for the druidic and pagan population that St. Patrick converted to Christianity. But even that wasn’t was as flashy as the story makes it out to be. St. Patrick didn’t one day drive all the druids into the ocean; instead, the conversion to Christianity was slow and methodical. And St. Patrick didn’t do it all himself – other missionaries were converting the Irish population before and after him.

Where does this leave us? Remember that folklore and history are complicated. St. Patrick lived 1500 years ago, at a time when history and stories were oral. Things weren’t written down nearly as much, and the stories we have now have likely changed since they were first recited. We don’t have any primary sources of what St. Patrick was up to beyond what he himself wrote.

So read and listen to these stories with a grain of salt and an appreciation for the meaning behind the words. Not everything is a literal retelling of history. St. Patrick did not send literal snakes into the sea, but it’s still a fun story.


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