The Irish enjoy their reputation as the fun-loving dominion of the British Isles, but at one time they were also pretty decent invaders. It wasn’t unusual for the Irish to launch raids into neighboring civilizations, get some plundering done, and bring back prisoners. On one such occasion they brought back to the Emerald Isle as prisoner a young man whose father was an official with the Roman Catholic Church. This lad’s name was Patrick. And in deference to what he did or didn’t really do all those years ago, on the 17th of March everyone turns Irish and gets drunk as a poet to celebrate the young man who was eventually canonized as a saint.
While in captivity, Patrick did some good old-fashioned medieval soul-searching and by the time he was returned to his family he was routinely repeating a story about a vision of the people of Ireland crying out for his help. The legend goes that Patrick returned willingly to Ireland and drove all the snakes off the island and into the sea. Curiously, this legend is not unlike the story of Jesus driving Legion out of a man and turning them into swine that run off the edge of a cliff and into a watery grave. Oh well, there are a lot of similarities that pop up in Christian folk tales. Another legend tells of Patrick running up against a snake that was particularly stubborn in its refusal to listen to Patrick and off itself in the waters. According to the story, Patrick made a box into which he invited the slithery little fellow to crawl, but the snake resisted, insisting the box was too small for his svelte but still impressively bulky form. This disagreement led to an argument that could only be solved when the snake agreed to crawl into the box to prove to St. Patrick that it was, indeed, too small for him to fit into. Of course, once he crawled in, wily old Patrick shut the door on the box and tossed the snake into the sea. Oddly enough, it’s never really been explained just how it is that St. Patrick was able to destroy an entire species created by God without answering for his actions.
Some say the really odd thing is that there are, in fact, no snakes in Ireland. It is highly dubious that St. Patrick really had anything to do with this fact, however. More likely is that during the natural geologic shift that split Ireland from the mainland the snake population took a hit from which it never recovered. Also more likely is that the snakes, historically a symbol of evil in the world, somehow got concretized as a symbol of pagan beliefs that presented a threat to Catholic domination of the world. St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland resulted in the expulsion of many ancient pagan rituals and beliefs and this got intertwined over the years with the legend of driving out snakes.
In addition to giving the world far more than its share of drunken poets, Ireland is positively dripping with myths and legends. Just as there must surely be some kind of bizarre little nugget of truth laying at the unholy heart of the stories of leprechauns and banshees and Bono, so is there a valid genesis behind the story of St. Patrick driving snakes off the island. One can only hope that one day the true story behind why Bono is considered worthy of being listened to as he expounds upon the pressing international issues of the day will come to light.