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Snakes have strong St. Patrick's Day ties


March 13, 2018

Little bearded men in top hats and stockings, shamrocks, an over-abundance of green and painful pinches in its absence — St. Patrick’s Day is one of those holidays saturated with symbolism and tradition, however one character tied to the holiday that rarely receives mention is snakes.

This Saturday, behind all the green menu offerings at restaurants, shamrock decals in windows, poorly executed Irish brogues and leprechaun references, is a commemoration of the accomplishments of a man believed to have begun life as Maewyn Succat but best known as the snake evicting St. Patrick.

Details about St. Patrick can be a little cloudy — for instance no one is certain if March 17 was his date of birth, or death or both — and many legends attached to his infamy are steeped in mystery.

In its origins, St. Patrick’s Day was a religious holiday set aside to acknowledge the Christian conversion of Ireland — a feat credited to St. Patrick, a British-born man whose first arrived in Ireland as a teenage slave tasked with watching sheep on a mountain.

Escaping captivity in the early 400’s, he made his way back to England, became a priest then returned to Ireland where he began working to convert Irish citizens to Christianity.

It’s believed that after decades of effort by St. Patrick and his disciples, the Christian conversion of Ireland was completed by 432 AD.

Ironically, some of the symbols now attached to St. Patrick’s Day are throwbacks to the pagan beliefs and rituals he was trying to rid the people of when he brought them Christianity, but over the years, the day has been expanded to represent all things Irish, including fairy tales of little men who hoard pots of gold.

A less commonly discussed bullet on St. Patrick’s resume, however, has to do with the lack of snakes in Ireland. That’s correct, there are no snakes on the Emerald Isle.

According to scientists, the absence of snakes on the island goes back to the Ice Age, when it was just simply too cold for the cold blooded reptiles to take up residence there. Eventually, about 10,000 years ago, the glaciers began melting and a land-bridge made it possible for creatures to wander between Ireland, England and Europe.

Bears, lynx and wild boars were among those that did move into Ireland during this migration period, however snakes did not join those curious to see what lush green land had to offer.

Throughout the migration, the glaciers continued to melt and 1,500 years later the land-bridge to Ireland was under water, the animals that had made the trek became permanent residents, and the island to this day remains sans snakes

But of course that is not the way the St. Patrick legend goes.

While working to convert the Irish, St. Patrick had retreated to a cliff where he planned to fast for 40 days. The snakes of the island interrupted his fast by attacking him as he sat on the cliff, but he in turn chased them into the sea and banished all snakes from Ireland from that day forward, earning him perhaps his biggest credit.

A story that gained a fair share of believers over the years, when calibrated against science St. Patrick’s eviction of snakes in Ireland is best explained as a metaphor to symbolize him effectively chasing paganism from the island.

Metaphor though it may be, of all the symbols used to represent the green holiday, St. Patrick’s Day is arguably more about snakes than anything else — granted little green-clad men guarding pots of gold probably do make for better decorations.

Sharna Johnson is a writer who is always searching for ponies. You can reach her at:


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