Were There Ever Snakes in Ireland? The Myths of St. Patrick’s Day Debunked

by Jon D. B.

Did Saint Patrick actually deal with snakes in Ireland? Or is this simply one of the many pervasive myths of St. Patrick’s Day?

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaiobh, Outsiders – or a Happy St. Patrick’s Day in plain ol’ English. With so much Irish heritage and pioneer history in America, many of us can become as passionate about March 17 as we do December 25.

That may be taking it a bit far, but both Christian holidays do inspire a jovial spirit here in the states. And each, too, holds their own history of larger-than-life legends, folklore, and myths that can create more questions than they do answers. And chief among said myths for St. Patrick’s Day is, without a doubt:

Were There Ever Snakes in Ireland?

Perhaps the best-known St. Patrick’s Day story is, strangely, the most impossible according to the fossil record.

Lynn Corry aka St Patrick, and his snake friends drop by Slemish Mountain, on behalf of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, to remind you that there are lots of great St Patrick’s Day events around Northern Ireland. Twenty thousand were expected in Downpatrick -where St Patrick is reputed to be buried – for the biggest cross-community carnival in the province. (Photo by Paul Faith – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

This St. Patrick’s Day myth is so pervasive, in fact, that it tends to absorb other legends into a single, snake-fueled story.

For example, a separate tale of St. Patrick’s 40-day fast atop Croagh Patrick is now often told as part of his snake-banishment myth. In this version of the tale, St. Patrick finishes his fast and returns to the grounds below to find snakes gathering all around him.

As they hiss and do as snakes do, St. Patrick finds then wholly un-holy. And so he banishes them from Ireland forever. This, in Christian Irish folklore, is the “reason” why Ireland as an island is completely snake-free in nature.

According to the fossil record, snakes were never found in Ireland, period. At least, not the Ireland that survives today. As the island itself was forming, reptiles would’ve been in far warmer climates south. And as the plant began to warm, the fossil record shows us that snakes never made it across the land bridge that once linked Ireland to the European continent.

In other words: There are no snake fossils in Ireland because the island never had snakes. Which means St. Patrick never could’ve driven them all out. Any snakes that exist in Ireland today are certainly from modern man’s obsession with exotic species and pets.

Instead, the ‘Snakes’ were Likely Pagans

While similar snake-banishing stories exist in other saint legends of Christianity, the myth may be an allegory for the true work of St. Patrick himself.

Instead of taking this story literally, the snakes of Ireland can be viewed as the pagans of Ireland’s Celtic history. St. Patrick would prove instrumental in Ireland’s continuing conversion to Christianity at large, and his “banishment of snakes” may in truth be a simple metaphor for his “banishment of pagans.”

Snakes are a prominent symbol of evil in the Christian bible, so it’s not hard to imagine a few post-medieval monks labeling all Irish pagans (or any heathen) as such in their recounting of St. Patrick’s life and legends. A bad wrap for the indigenous peoples of Ireland, to be sure.

Saint Patrick’s Love of the Shamrock: Another St. Patrick’s Day Myth

As much as St. Patrick was said to have loathed snakes, he is to have loved the shamrock as passionately. This, however, is another St. Patrick’s Day myth.

St. Patrick blessing crowd, St Patricks Day Parade, South Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Whether calling it the shamrock, Irish seamróg, or common clover, we’re all talking about the same plant: a small leafing sprig with three leaves. But the actual St. Patrick never mentioned a shamrock in his teachings.

According to historian of medieval Ireland Lisa Bitel, “None of the early Patrician stories featured the shamrock – or Irish seamróg… Yet children in Catholic schools still learn that Patrick used a shamrock as a symbol of the Christian Trinity when he preached to the heathen Irish.”

It’s impossible to separate St. Patrick from the shamrock these days, however. Parades held the world over – like the one seen above in Boston – feature shamrocks by the thousands. Even those in Ireland who dress up for St. Patrick’s Day wholly embrace this myth. Much of the modern stained-glass and cathedralic representations of Saint Patrick, too, show him holding clover.

History Holds a Far Different St. Patrick

But the majority of historical illustrations of the actual man – and not the myth – do not feature a single shamrock, either:

St Patrick, Bishop and Apostle of Ireland, Calendar of Saints, March 17, engraving from Composition artistiques in inventees par le peintre Philippe Bigioli et reproduites a l’aquarelle par le graveur Jean Wenzel (Artistic compositions invented by painter Filippo Bigioli and reproduced at watercolour by engraver Giovanni Wenzel), 1843, Rome. (Photo by Icas94 / De Agostini via Getty Images)

According to legend, Saint Patrick used the shamrock as a way of explaining the mystery of Christianity’s Holy Trinity to the heathens of Ireland. This St. Patrick’s Day myth tells that the shamrock, a single plant made up three leaves, was used by Patrick himself to illustrate all three facets of God in the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Much like his banishment of snakes, however, this story is likely to have originated with post-medieval Irish monks. History’s first reference to this “shamrock teaching” of Saint Patrick is 1726, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

St. Patrick Wasn’t Born Irish, Either. But He Was an Irish Slave for a Time.

To end with a bit more history, the man history and Christianity would label as Saint Patrick was born sometime around 450 A.D. – not in Ireland.

Instead, Patrick was born on an estate called Bannavem Taburniae – a place we no longer know the location of. But we do know that it was somewhere in England; possibly near the border of Wales.

Patrick’s father was also a Christian deacon and is described by history as a “learned gentleman.” Patrick himself, however, would wind up

Patrick was born around 450 A.D., just when Roman troops withdrew from Britain. His father was a gentleman and a Christian deacon who owned a small estate in a place called Bannavem Taburniae.

Scholars aren’t sure where this place was – it was probably on the west coast around Bristol, near the southern border of modern Wales and England. Wherever it was, it was probably close to the coast, as St. Patrick’s own writings also tell us that he and his neighbors were captured by Irish slave traders to sell back in Ireland when he was but a teenager.

Patrick would become an adult tending sheep in the west of Ireland as a result; something he says he did for six long years.

And the rest, as we often say here at Outsider, is history. Or, in the case of St. Patrick’s Day, more often myths.