Since St. Patrick’s Day is once again upon us, and some of my ancestors hailed from the Emerald Isle, I figured it was time to look a little further into who St. Patrick was and the fable of how he drove all the snakes from Ireland.
Who was St. Patrick?
St. Patrick was a 5th century missionary who was born in Britain and was raised a Christian. At 16 he was captured by Irish pirates and spent six years as a herdsman in Ireland. His religious faith grew whilst in captivity and he eventually escaped back to Britain. He later studied at Auxerre, France and eventually became a bishop. He returned to Ireland in an attempt to convert the population to Christianity from Paganism. He is associated with the shamrock leaf and used this to promote the idea of the holy trinity to the people of Ireland. He is often depicted with snakes fleeing from his presence.(1)
Did St. Patrick drive the snakes from Ireland?
Think back to the stories from the Bible. Think back to Adam and Eve. Remember how Adam and Eve were encouraged by a serpent to eat the forbidden fruit?(2) Ever since then serpents have been associated with Satan and possibly representative of paganism. According to the Bible, God said to the serpent, “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she will crush your head, and thou shalt will lie in wait for her heel.”(2)St. Patrick allegedly drove all the snakes from Ireland but killed their frogs and toads too.(4) As you can imagine, the story is metaphorical and there is no evidence to back up this claim.(5) According to Nigel Monaghan of the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, no fossils of snakes have ever been found in Ireland. The climate was too cold for snakes until the last ice age came to an end (10,000 years ago). The sea then acted as a natural barrier preventing snakes form migrating to Ireland.(6)
What of St. Patrick Day celebrations?
The Irish, and their descendants, have several traditions that they will follow on this day:
Practicing Christians will go to church to observe the Holy Day of Obligation.
- Wear lots of green
- Watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade (I attended one in Dublin ten years ago)
- Drink copius amounts of Guinness, Murphy’s and other Irish stouts. (If you live abroad or in a city like Dublin they may even dye the stouts green
- Attend a seisiún, (the gaelic for gathering of people who play music together in a relaxed atmosphere like a pub)
- Feast on traditional Irish food like stews, boxty (potato pancakes), soda bread, potato farls and colcannon.
No doubt my parents, whose great-grandparents were from Skibbereen, in Cork and Clogheen in Tipperary, will no doubt wish to find a local venue that will have a traditional Irish music band performing and drinking a few pints of Guinness.
Sadly, in recent years St. Patrick’s Day has come under fire for its commercialisation and promotion of over intoxication. Some think it promotes derogatory stereotypes of Irish people as being drunkards and leprechauns. Non-Irish participants are known as “plastic paddys” for helping promote these negative stereotypes. It always surprises me how we accept institutionalised racial stereotyping for one population but are quick to slam those who stereotype other cultures…but I’ll leave that for another post.
(2) & (3) Holy Bible translated from the Latin vulgate : the Old Testament first published by the English College at Douay, A.D. 1609 : and the New Testament first published by the English College at Rheims, A.D. 1582 : with annotations, references, and an historical and chronological table. (https://archive.org/details/theholybibletran00unknuoft)
(1) & (5) Hutchison-Hall, J., (2012).Orthodox Saints of the British Isles – Volume I. St. Eadfrith Press.
(6) Owen, J., (2008) Snakeless in Ireland: Blame the ice age, not St. Patrick. (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/03/080313-snakes-ireland.html Accessed on 16th March 2016)
(4) Robinson, W.E., (1842) St. Patrick and the Irish: an oration, before the Hibernian Provident Society. (https://archive.org/stream/stpatrickandiri00socigoog#page/n13/mode/2up/search/patrick)