The Irish Snake Mistake
Every March, millions of people celebrate the day that St. Patrick drove out snakes from Ireland. According to legend, Saint Patrick was continuing a 40-day fast when he was attacked by snakes atop a hill during the 5th century. After driving them into the sea, snakes were banished from Ireland forever.
Which sounds like a sweet story and probably Indiana Jones’ dream come true. Except for one minor detail: there were never any snakes in Ireland.
In fact, scientists have found no archaeological evidence of snakes at any time on the Emerald Isle. They assert that this is due to the most recent Ice Age — Ireland’s climate was far too cold to harbor any silent slitherers until 10,000 years ago. Other land species like the brown bear, wild boar, and lynx could sustain the climate towards the end of the Ice Age, but snake populations are historically slow at colonizing new areas.
Around 6,500 years ago, a land bridge between Europe and Britain allowed three species of snakes (the venomous adder, grass snake, and smooth snake) to migrate to the U.K. But due to a surge in sea level as glaciers melted, the land bridge that connected Ireland to Britain was flooded. So as the climate warmed, snakes returned to northern and western Europe and even traveled as far as the Arctic Circle, but never made it to Ireland.
The story of St. Patrick it seems, was more allegorical than it was literal. As a born-Brit converted to Christianity, St. Patrick went to Ireland to spread his religious beliefs and convert the Irish from polytheism. And, since snakes are traditional symbols of evil and heathenism (think Satan in the Garden of Eden), the story can instead be translated as a metaphor for his Christian influence in the area.
For more fun facts about snakes, check out the Reptile Living Room!