Did St. Patrick Chase the Snakes Out of Ireland?

Illustration of a three-headed serpent from Celtic Fairy Tales, 1892 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

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No, he didn’t.

Phew, that was an easy one. Moving on. Next question…

OK, fine, let’s examine this one a bit more closely, shall we? In a literal sense, there is no way Patrick could have driven any snakes out of Ireland because there were no snakes there to begin with.

To quote Nigel Monaghan, head of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin:

“At no time has there ever been any suggestion of snakes in Ireland. [There was] nothing for St. Patrick to banish.”

source: “Did St. Patrick Really Drive Snakes Out of Ireland?” (National Geographic)

The credit for the Emerald Isle’s lack of serpents should not be given to Patrick, standing on a mountaintop (Croagh Patrick), waving his magical staff (more on that later), uttering some variation of “I banish thee, all venomous and viperous things” —although that is an entertaining story.

Instead, the credit must go to the last Ice Age, which made conditions too frigid to support cold-blooded critters such as snakes. And while ten thousand years ago, the glaciers receded and land bridges connected Ireland to Britain, and Britain to mainland Europe, allowing the likes of bears, boars, and lynxes to enter Ireland, snakes were evidently not able to slither swiftly enough to make it across in time.

Yet the myth lives on. And perhaps what is even more impressive is that the myth was able to propagate in the first place—at a time when people already knew that there had never been any snakes in Ireland. To quote Seumas MacManus:

“Some centuries before, Solinus, the Roman writer, recorded that there were no snakes in Ireland—which belies the honoured tradition. The tradition, however, persists, and will always persist in popular belief.”

source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland

Of course, by focusing exclusively on the literal interpretation of Patrick’s snake-driving, we may be missing out on some important symbolism. There is, in fact, a long tradition of snake-charming among Christian saints, which includes Saint Hilary, St. Adalbert, and St. Columba. In this tradition, of which Patrick is a part, getting rid of or taming snakes is clearly a euphemism for dispelling evil—a perceived evil, anyway—by spreading Christianity.

In Ireland, where druids were the supreme religious leaders of the land at the time of Patrick’s arrival, the snake-driving possibly had even more symbolic significance. To quote Catholic priest and writer Dwight Longenecker:

“The pagan druids featured serpents in their worship and were tattooed with serpents. Furthermore, the serpent, in many pagan nature religions, is the symbol of the ‘earth powers’. To put it bluntly, Patrick was an effective exorcist. He drove out the pagan religions and with it drove out the Great Serpent Satan.”

source: “The Snakes of St. Patrick” (Patheos)

Want to learn more about Saint Patrick? Check out…

Saint Patrick in Your Pocket

Separate man from myth, fact from folklore, in this small but mighty pocket guide dedicated to uncovering lesser-known facts about Ireland’s most beloved patron saint. Armed with answers to these 20 tantalizing questions, you’ll be the smartest reveler in the room at your next Saint Patrick’s Day party. Learn more…

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