No Snakes in Ireland

 

Think of Ireland and you can’t help but think of Saint Patrick’s Day. The holiday, honoring Ireland’s own Saint Patrick, celebrates the holy man’s many deeds and accomplishments, notably the introduction of Christianity to the country. The story of Saint Paddy, however, might just be a sham.

snakes in ireland

Abducted by Pirates

The real identity of Saint Patrick continues to be debated by historians, but they all agree that Saint Patrick wasn’t even born in Ireland. He was born in Britain, a colony of the Christian Roman Empire.

Coming from a family of wealthy clerics, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates as a child and taken to the Emerald Isles to work as a shepherd. Eventually escaping back home, he resolved to return to Ireland to convert them from their Gaelic pagan tradition.

Becoming a Saint

Credited with introducing Christianity to Ireland, there’s much debate over the accuracy of this claim. While historians are certain Saint Patrick was alive in the 5th century, they aren’t certain he was the first missionary to the Emerald Isles. There’s even a theory that Saint Patrick was actually two people who lived through a 100-year span of time spreading Christianity, and that history combined their stories.

Known for his green wardrobe nowadays, it’s likely he actually wore blue robes, which would have been more traditional for the time. Green was likely added to make his legend more in line with Irish colors.

saint patrick

The earliest known depiction of St. Patrick (right).

Slithering Snakes

Wandering the countryside of Ireland, you may notice the absence of snakes. While Britain has a handful of native species, Ireland is completely free of the reptiles—a feat credited to Saint Patrick. The legend goes that Patrick was fasting on a hill for 40 days when a colony of snakes began pestering him. Stricken with divine purpose, Saint Patrick gallantly drove the serpents into the sea, ridding Ireland of the creatures forever.

The truth is, the only snakes ever to live in Ireland have been in zoos or kept as pets. Paleontologists have confirmed that snakes haven’t lived in Ireland for at least 10,000 years. Isolated from mainland Europe, the only way the snakes could come over is for an ice age to strike, lowering sea levels and creating a land bridge. Unfortunately, this would also make Ireland far too cold for reptiles to live. If the temperatures drop, then the land bridge disappears, creating a cyclical barrier against serpents.

european ice age

Glaciation in Europe

But the Druids

While the literal story doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, we could be taking it a little too literally. Snakes have long been used in Judeo-Christian religions as a symbol of sin and temptation. This is as core an allegory as the story of Adam and Eve. The story, instead, is likely a nod to the work Patrick did to convert the “blasphemous” pagans of the time over to Christianity.

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