Snakes Alive! It's St Patrick's Day

St Patrick depicted with the snakes that he drove into the sea
St Patrick depicted with the snakes that he drove into the sea

by Ray Setterfield

Published: February 19, 2019

March 17 is St Patrick's Day or the Feast of Saint Patrick, a cultural and religious holiday celebrated every year in Ireland and by Irish communities around the world. The celebration marks the anniversary of Saint Patrick’s death in the fifth century and represents the arrival of Christianity in the country.

Celebrations to mark the event long ago spread across the world from the "Emerald Isle". New York, for example, is noted for its extravagant parades and marching bands on this day – a tradition said to date back to 1776. Such is the enthusiasm that in recent years up to 300,000 marchers and two million spectators have brought the "Big Apple" to a virtual halt.

Boston, too, is noted for its spectacular parades with floats, marching bands, live music, and dyed green beer! Bostonians got in on the act even before New York, when in 1737 the newly formed Charitable Irish Society organised its first parade to honour St Patrick.

Not to be outdone, Chicago dyed its river green on March 17 in 1962 – the start of a new tradition. There has even been a parade on the streets of Moscow since 1992.

So what is known about St Patrick? Well, for a start, it is not certain that he was Irish, claims having been registered that he was born in Wales or Scotland!

Wherever his roots, the history books show that in the late fourth or early fifth century he was captured by pirates, sold into slavery and kept in bondage for six years in Ireland. Breaking away from his chains, as it were, he escaped to France where he became a monk. By about 432 he had become a bishop and returned to Ireland as a missionary.

According to Catholic scholars he arrived there in 433 and soon met the chieftan of one of the druid tribes, who tried to kill him. After an intervention by God, Patrick was able to convert the chieftain and went on to preach the Gospel throughout Ireland. He preached there for 40 years, converting thousands of people and building churches across the country.

He died in 461 at Saul, where he had built the first Irish church and is believed to be buried in Down Cathedral, Downpatrick.

Today, there are no snakes in Ireland and that, according to legend, is thanks to St Patrick. The priest John Colgan began work on a six-volume Irish ecclesiastical history in the 17th Century, including the lives of the saints. In it, he tells how Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland by luring them to the sea where they were drowned.

Colgan relates that he accomplished this feat by beating a drum, but he did so with such fervour that he knocked a hole in it, putting the success of the miracle in jeopardy. Fortunately, we are told, an angel appeared and mended the drum.

Patrick then rendered the Irish soil so obnoxious to serpents that to this day they die immediately on touching it.

Scientists say this is all bunkum and that snakes have never been seen on the island of Ireland. How would they have got there?

Scholars in their turn believe that the snake story is an allegory for St Patrick’s eradication of pagan ideology. American classics professor Philip Freeman says that since snakes often represent evil in literature, "when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of the country and brought in a new age."

The saint's true name was Maewyn Succat. That obviously lacked an Irish ring and he later became known as St Patrick, named after his place of burial.

Event Date: March 17, 1776
Event Location: Dublin, Ireland

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