A quick overview of Saint Patrick and the druids and reptiles of Ireland
March 17, 2014 11:01 AM   Subscribe

It's pretty widely known that there have never been snakes in Ireland, so who did Saint Patrick chase out? The case has been made that the story of Saint Patrick chasing out druids (snake-tattooed pagans) is also a myth (and Patrick wasn't even Irish). But that doesn't mean there are no reptiles in Ireland. The only native land-based reptile is the viviparous lizard, though there are other reptiles that are semi-inhabitants of Ireland. And this brings us to the the amateur survey of Ireland's lizards, newts, frogs and slow worms, one of a number of such surveys hosted by Biology.ie, "Ireland's premier Biodiversity Awareness portal."
posted by filthy light thief (32 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
filthy light thief: "It's pretty widely known that there have never been snakes in Ireland, so who did Saint Patrick chase out?"

Wait... what?

*mind blown*
posted by zarq at 11:30 AM on March 17, 2014

I don't know why, but I've always thought of that story as an analogy for St. Patrick running off charlatans, scammers, grifters and other people who prey on the weak.

Not for any specific reason, other that I sort of like the the idea of Patrick being some sort of movie style bad-ass straight out of a revenge flick.

Also: slow worms sound kind of adorable; like snakes with little tiny earholes and the ability to blink.
posted by quin at 11:37 AM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sheesh. He chased them out retroactively. It's like God creating a billion-years-old universe in 7 days a few thousand years ago.
posted by straight at 11:38 AM on March 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

At last, the perfect opportunity to tell my favourite joke ever:

Q. What did St Patrick say as he drove the snakes out of Ireland?
A. "Are you all right in the back, there, lads?"

I'll be here all week, try the chicken, etc.
posted by meronym at 11:39 AM on March 17, 2014 [16 favorites]

Huh. So St. Patrick's Day is all about a guy who, in his zeal for converting people to Christianity, drove heretics and nonbelievers -- people like me -- out of Ireland. And people like me are called snakes, in a fun little analogy.

I have a lot of Irish ancestors.

*looks down at green shirt*

You know, stuff like this was simpler and more fun when I was a kid.
posted by gurple at 11:45 AM on March 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Huh. So St. Patrick's Day is all about a guy who, in his zeal for converting people to Christianity, drove heretics and nonbelievers -- people like me -- out of Ireland.

Read the second link. The allegorical reading (snakes=heretics/pagans) is a very late invention recently made popular by neopagans. The snakes were real, literal snakes. The story itself was just a nice miraculous just-so story borrowed from the life of a French saint.
posted by yoink at 11:51 AM on March 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just be glad Ireland isn't subtropical or tropical. It would just be waiting to be overrun with invasive snakes.
posted by bad grammar at 11:56 AM on March 17, 2014

I learned this week that St. Patrick is not just the Patron Saint of Ireland, but also of New York (or, well, the Archdiocese of New York, still yay!) and... paralegals.

I want this to be better publicized. If anyone needs to have today off to get shitfaced, it's paralegals.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:07 PM on March 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

The extensive Wikipedia page for St. Patrick lists the following as being under the patronage of Patrick:
Ireland, Nigeria, Montserrat, Archdiocese of New York, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, Boston, Rolla, Missouri (USA), Loíza, Puerto Rico, Murcia (Spain), engineers, paralegals, Archdiocese of Melbourne; invoked against snakes, sins, witchcraft
American Catholic has a ton of other articles on Saint Patrick, if you're interested, though I couldn't find on that site who was first attributed with the banishing of snakes.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:16 PM on March 17, 2014

More on Saint Patrick: The scarcity of facts about St. Patrick's life has made him a dress-up doll: Anyone can create his own St. Patrick. Ireland's Catholics and Protestants, who have long feuded over him, each have built a St. Patrick in their own image.
Outside Ireland, too, Patrick has been freely reinterpreted. Evangelical Protestants claim him as one of their own. After all, he read his Bible, and his faith came to him in visions. Biblical inspiration and personal revelation are Protestant hallmarks. Utah newspapers emphasize that Patrick was a missionary sent overseas to convert the ungodly, an image that resonates in Mormon country. New Age Christians revere Patrick as a virtual patron saint. Patrick co-opted Druid symbols in order to undermine the rival religion, fusing nature and magic with Christian practice. The Irish placed a sun at the center of their cross. "St. Patrick's Breastplate," Patrick's famous prayer (which he certainly did not write) invokes the power of the sun, moon, rocks, and wind, as well as God.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:27 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

But I don't see any tigers snakes around, do you?
posted by zamboni at 12:45 PM on March 17, 2014

Huh. So St. Patrick's Day is all about a guy who, in his zeal for converting people to Christianity, drove heretics and nonbelievers -- people like me -- out of Ireland. And people like me are called snakes, in a fun little analogy.

Really, any holiday has its own dark undertones.
posted by Atreides at 1:14 PM on March 17, 2014

Pffft, March 17 is just a gentle ramp-down from the real March holy day, St. Urho Day.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:19 PM on March 17, 2014

So St. Patrick's Day is all about a guy who, in his zeal for converting people to Christianity, drove heretics and nonbelievers -- people like me -- out of Ireland.

For my ancestors, it was famine and poverty that drove them out of Ireland.

But out of respect for me Irish grandmother who passed away many years ago on St. Patrick's day, I stiil believe in St. Patrick. I love you Grandma. Hope I told you often enough.
posted by three blind mice at 1:26 PM on March 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

"It's pretty widely known that there have never been snakes in Ireland, so who did Saint Patrick chase out?"

Wait... what?

Oh, hell, yeah, a huge chunk of the pre-historic or pre-Christian-origin saints' biographies are total bunk. Whenever you had some monks coming to a non-Christian area, a lot of times they'd ask the people they met what the deal was with Grathorg the local deity who made magic springs or whatever, and then a couple days later come back and tell everyone that hey, they just heard back from Rome that there's actually a Saint Grathorg, and hey, Saint Grathorg made a spring of holy water, isn't that a funny coincidence?....So, about your Baptism....

Sometimes the newly-converted kind of did that themselves. Another couple favorite Irish saints, Brigid and Eithne, were a Celtic Goddess and a fairy woman respectively. I've read a Celtic tale about Eithne in particular, which flat-out says she was a fairy who converted to Christianity and was living in a convent for a while, until one day when she was at prayer and suddenly heard the voices of the fairy folk calling her to come home. But she stayed put, and died of a broken heart.

Actually - and gurple, this may make you feel better too - the very early stages of Christianity in Ireland may have been surprisingly smooth. The early Christians weren't too fussed about some of the weird beliefs the Celts had, and the Celts seemed to take the Christian mythos in stride. In one of the Irish myth cycles, there's actually a story where a couple of the old Celtic heros - I think they're a couple of the Fianna - run into St. Patrick while he's roaming around, and Patrick decides to hang out with them a couple days (after baptizing them first). They spend a couple days telling Patrick stories about their youth and the raids they went on and stuff.

But - the most telling part of this myth is: it's been a couple days, they're gonna have breakfast together in the morning, and Patrick gets a crisis of conscience all of a sudden, all, "should I be hanging out with these heathen and listening to these heathen stories? I mean, they're cool and all, but..." and suddenly Patrick is visited by a couple angels who tell him that naw, it's cool, and who cares if these guys are talking about pre-Christian times, because they're still really cool stories and people can tell them as "fairy tales" because it's fun. So, don't sweat it, Pat. And Patrick says "cool!" and spends another couple days asking them about other raids and battles and stuff.

And I've heard that there's another Celtic myth of some hero and his men in the middle of a big battle, and suddenly the sky goes dark and everyone stops the battle and is all "wtf?" and a druid comes to the hero and tells him that he's just had a vision that far away in a land called Jerusalem there's a Man who was the Son of God who was unjustly killed and that's why the skies are darkening in grief. And the hero says "well, that's not right - okay, when we finish up here let's go there and avenge Him," and then the battle starts up again.

The presence of that kind of mingling-of-stories in the mythology of Patrick's time indicates that the crossover on both sides was pretty smooth, and that for a while, at least, Christian and Celt were adapting. But there's other evidence that's the case too - a few centuries later, Rome sent a Welsh monk to Ireland to check up on the state of things in the Irish church. And what he found was pretty much a mind-meld of Christian and Celtic beliefs and traditions that totally freaked him out and be all, "no WAY these people are Christian, I don't know WHAT this is that they're doing." So maybe the church cracked down some on things after that, but Patrick and his contemporaries were actually probably cool.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:37 PM on March 17, 2014 [11 favorites]

Oh, yay, I found it! The St.-Patrick-talking-to-the-old-warriors story is Agallamh na Seanórach, or "The Colloquy of the Ancients". A PDF is here, and the quote about the angels is here:
Patrick's two guardian angels came to him now, of whom he enquired whether in God's sight it were convenient for him to be listening to stories of the Fianna. With equal emphasis, and concordantly, the angels answered him: "holy cleric, no more than a third part of their stories do those ancient warriors tell, by reason of forgetfulness and lack of memory; but by thee be it written on tabular staffs of poets...for to the companies and nobles of the latter time to give ear to these stories will be for a pastime." Which said, the angels departed.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:56 PM on March 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Can we still drink lots of Guinness and Jameson and listen to Dropkick Murphys? Yeah.
OK Then.
posted by jonmc at 2:42 PM on March 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

[the story of snakes=Druids]" . . . is in the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries from 1911 where someone states that he believes based on a story that because a certain place was where the Druids last stronghold was and also the place Saint Patrick drove the snakes that the snakes must represent the Druids, but it’s just faulty logic (Evans Wentz, 1911). The snakes in the story were just meant to be snakes, just as the toads were toads and Saint George’s dragon was a dragon.”

It's all a metaphor, man. Like, snakes within snakes.
posted by petebest at 4:05 PM on March 17, 2014

I thought it was turtles. Turtles all the way down.
posted by dabitch at 4:31 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Um, am I missing a joke or something? Surely the "St. Patrick chased them all away" story was created to explain why there aren't any snakes in Ireland?
posted by Naberius at 4:45 PM on March 17, 2014

Happy St Patrick's Day! I went out, listen to an Irish guy sing lots and got an awesome green hat. Oh yeah and beer, lots and lots of beer.
posted by Jalliah at 7:21 PM on March 17, 2014

As mentioned upthread, Patrick is the patron saint of engineers, which is why he's invoked for Rolla, MO (a town with a pretty decent engineering and science university). Each year the fraternities and sororities there have a tradition where the new recruits have to carve massive tree trunks into shillelaghs and 'chase the snakes out of Rolla' by beating a bunch of rubber snakes to death with them for hours and screaming themselves hoarse. It's said that they used to use real snakes every year, but I wouldn't be too surprised if that's not historical either. There's a lot of other strange traditions in that town too.

I guess the point is that whether a story is true and what it means doesn't have any effect whatsoever on which parts of it other people will take as important enough to pass on. Local legends branch off into the strangest directions.
posted by sandswipe at 7:51 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Naberius - I'll be damned, you're right.

In Ireland proper, there's also a tradition that Patrick climbed a mountain and camped out for 40 days until an angel came and asked "okay, we give in, whaddya want?" And Patrick negotiated a get-out-of-hell-free deal for the majority of all Irish people. There has been a church on that mountain for over a thousand years, and pilgrimages there every year.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:52 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

A pagan friend of mine heard this snakes = pagans story and told me the other day she didn't plan on celebrating the holiday any more. I was all, "So why don't you just celebrate wearing green and drinking, like everyone else does?"

Which reminds me, I still need to find some booze for the day....
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:00 PM on March 17, 2014

'Twas only practice for removing of the Poms
posted by lometogo at 1:24 AM on March 18, 2014

I've always thought St Bridget would make a better patron saint for Ireland. Why?

1.) She's actually Irish
2.) She performed the miracle of turning bathwater into beer, which is a really Irish miracle.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:31 AM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Pffft, March 17 is just a gentle ramp-down from the real March holy day, St. Urho Day.

I hate St. Urho's day so much. What a lame rip-off of St. Patrick's day. It's not like there aren't actual Finnish folklore and celebrations to have.
posted by Authorized User at 4:32 AM on March 18, 2014

You know, if we're going to have a holiday celebrating an invented thing that a non-Irish person never did in Ireland, let's just go ahead and make up stories.

I have spent years telling people that England was created by Finn McCool throwing sheep's dung at Scotland. There's your holiday.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:33 AM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

if we're going to have a holiday celebrating an invented thing that a non-Irish person never did in Ireland....

Well, technically, the holiday isn't specifically "about" the snake thing, it's "about" St. Patrick in general. Which makes it big in Ireland for one reason (if over 80% of your nation's population is Catholic, then your nation's patron saint's feast day is kind of a big deal); and in the rest of the world, whereever there's a big enough Irish-immigrant or Irish-heritage population, it's more about "Ireland fuck yeah".

Me, I'm just glad to have been safely indoors for the bulk of the parade nonsense this year; I work a couple blocks from 5th Avenue these days, but my subway stop is directly under the building I work in and I brown-bagged it yesterday, so I got to work before the crowds started gathering and stayed put, and left an hour after the parade ended, so except for two girls in green wigs and green fairy wings and one guy who was wearing the Irish tricolor as a cape I didn't see any revelers.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:44 AM on March 18, 2014

There are snakes in Ireland. Not native or even in the wild, but people keep them as pets. I've seen one with my own eyes so I know it's not made up and no one else I talked to in Ireland about this seemed to think anything of it.

Whereas New Zealand, the other snake-free country, really doesn't have any snakes at all of any kind. They're very much illegal and a fair amount of effort is put into keeping them out (along with all the other stuff we don't want imported).
posted by shelleycat at 10:48 AM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are also snakes in the Dublin Zoo. To be honest, I was a bit sad when I found out it's not really properly snake-free like New Zealand when I moved there. Not that I have any problem with snakes at all, it just seemed like a nice piece of trivia about the places I'd lived at that time (I'm in Germany now). Looks like maybe I need to move to Iceland next.
posted by shelleycat at 10:55 AM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

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