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)

Editor’s note: this article is an excerpt from “20 Questions With St. Patrick: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the ‘Apostle of Ireland’”

Further Reading

Beyond Snakes and Shamrocks: St. Patrick’s Missional Leadership Lessons for Today

by Ross A. Lockhart

Per the publisher: “Somewhere in the mists of time, between history and hagiography, stands the great evangelist and missionary St. Patrick. Raised a “cultural Christian,” Patrick’s encounter with God during captivity in Ireland transformed his life and the history of a people. Freedom from slavery, and a return home to Britain, produced the divine summons—Vox Hibernia—to return to Ireland and the place of captivity in order to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christian witness in twenty-first-century Vancouver, Seattle, or Portland is a world away from fifth-century Armagh, Slane, or Cashel.” Learn more…

The Making of Ireland’s Landscape Since the Ice Age

by Valerie Hall

Per the publisher: “This is the intriguing story of Ireland’s changing landscape over 14,000 years. It explains how the landscape has been shaped by the interplay of natural forces and human activity. Today, as Ireland’s landscape continues to be influenced by relentless change, greater understanding of the past’s rich legacy may encourage more ecological preservation.” Learn more…

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

by Seumas MacManus

Per the publisher: “A classic history of the Irish people from their prehistoric origins to their fight for independence in twentieth century. It provides fascinating insight into the origins of their culture, religion, laws, arts, antiquities, folklore, trade, literature, heroes, and more. MacManus sketches brilliant overviews of a number of the most famous figures from the country’s past, some of whom, like St. Patrick, allowed the Irish to flourish, whilst others, like Oliver Cromwell, persecuted them. ” Learn more…

St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography

by Philip Freeman

Per the publisher: “Ireland’s patron saint has long been shrouded in legend, but the true story of St. Patrick is far more inspiring than the myths. In St. Patrick of Ireland, Philip Freeman brings the historic Patrick and his world vividly to life. Patrick speaks in his own voice in two remarkable letters he wrote about himself and his beliefs, new translations of which are included here and which are still astonishing for their passion and eloquence.” Learn more…


by Stephen Lawhead

Per the publisher: “Set in an era of brutal conflict and turmoil, this epic adventure is the first novel to tell the full story of the slave who became a saint, of the man who rose to the challenge of his time and changed the course of history. In the summer of 405AD, Irish raiders attack the western coast of Wales, carving a fiery swathe through the peaceful countryside. Among the survivors who are rounded up and taken back to Ireland is Succat: an impulsive sixteen-year-old son of a powerful Roman family.” Learn more…

Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland

by Tomie dePaola

Per the publisher: “An illustrated tribute to the Irish patron saint from the best-selling author of Quiet, Strega Nona, and many others. This timeless picture book, available in large-format paperback or as the board book Saint Patrick, is a perfect introduction to important Irish legends and an ideal St. Patrick’s day gift. Beloved children’s book author-illustrator Tomie dePaola recounts the life of Saint Patrick—from his noble birth in Britain, to his captivity in Ireland, to the visions which led him to return and found the first Christian church in Ireland.” Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

by multiple authors

A collection of 17 short stories, NEON DRUID mixes urban fantasy and Celtic mythology, creating a universe where lecherous leprechauns and debaucherous druids inhabit the local pubs, and where shapeshifting water spirits from Scotland and sword-wielding warriors from Ireland lurk in the alleyways. Stories range from tales of supernatural horror, to street-level fantasy adventures, to farcical, whiskey-drenched fairytales. Learn more…

More book ideas:

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