Saint Patrick and Ireland.
A Hugely Popular Saint.
St Patrick is one of the most recognisable Catholic Saints, and alongside St. Valentine is probably the most celebrated. Even those who do not hold strong religious convictions or practise a different faith are willing to indulge in revelry to celebrate his legend and deeds.
The legend of St Patrick and his banishment of all the snakes from Ireland has been celebrated in many different forms for over a thousand years. This Irish folktale has captured the imagination of millions and has been recorded in verse, song and scripture. St Patrick is the patron Saint of Ireland and is now thought of as being integral to stating Irish national identity. St Patrick, Leprechauns, Guinness and Shamrock's are some of the first things people think of when asked about their own image of Ireland.
Perhaps the myth of St Patrick banishing all the snakes from Ireland has a deeper hidden meaning that has been glossed over for much of our history.
Does the banishing of snakes or serpents really mean that the animals were cleansed from the land?
Maybe the snakes that St Patrick removed were symbolic of the Devil and other demons? Or is the removal of the snakes a metaphor for the removal of the indigenous pagan religion and its replacement with the Christian faith?
Manifestation of Evil?
Early Life of St Patrick.
St. Patrick is thought to have been born in the northern wilds of England sometime in the Fifth Century A.D. The Roman Empire in the west of Europe was starting to crumble and much of the provinces were in a state of turmoil. With no way to defend themselves many Anglo-Romano citizens were enslaved or slaughtered by the invading enemies of Rome. These were often the Germanic tribes we know as the Saxons, Jutes, Angles and many others
It has been recorded that Patrick was brought over to Ireland and worked as slave labour on the native farms in a number of locations. He stayed in Ireland for over six years before escaping back to his homeland. He is thought to have come from a religious background and followed the path of God after his experiences in Ireland. He was soon made a Christian cleric and is thought to have visited much of mainland Europe before returning to the lands of his enslavement as a missionary. A few years later and Patrick was to become the first Bishop of Armagh.
Much of the information we have about his life is not very reliable or detailed. We do know that he was instrumental in bringing the Christian faith to the Irish tribes. Through his efforts in Ireland, St. Patrick ensured that much of England and Scotland remained Christian nations after the Roman Empire collapsed.
It was the Irish missionaries who reintroduced the Christian faith back into England and Scotland, otherwise, the paganism of the Germanic invaders may have taken hold. If this were to happen, then it would have ultimately invited the Church of Rome to convert the pagans by the sword in the future.
How St Patrick Lived
Ireland 15,000 years ago
During the formation of Europe, Ireland had been connected to mainland Scotland, England and Wales. Before Ireland's connection to the mainland via land bridges, much of the land we know as the 'Emerald Isle' was submerged beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
After the land surfaced it was covered by glacial ice until they receded. There had been some migration of species between the new Island and the main mass of Europe but the cold-blooded snakes would have been put off by Ireland's cold climate in comparison to their current location.
The Final Resting Place of Saint Patrick
Ireland and Their Lack of Snakes.
Ireland is in fact one of several nations that have no snakes native in the wild, other countries that have no native snake population include Hawaii, Greenland, New Zealand and Antarctica. Hawaii does have a population of sea snakes but they do not dwell on land. The reason why some nations don't have an indigenous snake population is simply down to conditions and accessibility.
Although other parts of the British Isles have a few native snakes, it appears that none of the snakes had the opportunity to travel across long-gone land bridges to colonize the Emerald Isle. The native snakes were unable to swim the Irish Sea to the new Island and there was minimal use of seafaring vessels at that point in history.
The early humans in the rest of the British Isles would have feared these creatures and would not want to inhabit Ireland. The lack of snakes mentioned as mythological creatures in Irish Celtic folklore backs up the non-existence of land serpents. When comparing Old Norse fables you see a marked increase in their inclusion in their culture. The most notable serpent or snake in Norse mythology was Jörmungandr also known as the World Serpent.
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Ireland and the Druids.
Before the people of Ireland converted to Christianity the religion of the land was Pagan and home to the Celtic Druids. They practised the same religion as the Ancient Britons and the Gauls of modern-day France. The Roman annexation of much of the outer reaches western Europe sent their ancient religion into decline. The influx of the new faith of Christianity would erode the belief in the ancient religion of Ireland. The Celtic faith had been in decline since the Romans had invaded the mainland of Britain. The Romans had destroyed many ancient pagan sites and put their own gods in place of the ancient Celtic deities. With the destruction of the sacred groves of Anglesey, many druids were slaughtered and much of the Irish, Welsh and English religious leadership were lost.
The druid elders numbered only a small amount of the Irish population and they were unable to flourish after the losses of so many of their number. The Christianity that the missionaries and St Patrick offered to the Irish was a new faith that was modern and compassionate. Gone were the superstitions of the ancient world, conversion to the new faith offered the people stability and inclusion in the greater Christian world. The mixing of the old ways with the articles of faith allowed St Patrick to cast out the ancient ways of worship and banished the snakes of Ireland from the Irish shores.
The druids of ancient Ireland were the snakes that St. Patrick removed from Ireland. The druid's tattoo's and ornate ceremonial staffs heavily resembled snake-like designs. The religion of the Druids was influenced by their European cousins, and the snakes were often used in other European cultures and folklore.
Christianity in Ireland
Do you believe that Ireland's religious history and impact on early Christianity is neglected?
Heavy on Symbolism, Light on Fact.
The use of snakes as a symbol of evil can be found in many religious manuscripts. The story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden fixates on the part the serpent played in mankind's downfall. The Norse mythology tells us that Jörmungandr will devour the God of Thunder, Thor is the guardian and protector of Mankind. Even in popular media, the snake is a symbol of evil, in the Jungle Book the Snake Kaa is cast as a villain and in Conan the Barbarian the villains are worshipers of snake sods.
The amount of affection that the Irish people feel towards their Patron Saint is still high but it can be argued that today in a more secular time, March 17th has become more a celebration of national identity than reverence for a long-deceased man of God. Those who are cynical might also point that St Patrick's legacy has in some ways been cheapened by the use of his day in promoting Guinness Irish Stout alongside the national celebration.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Andrew Stewart