When we start seeing everything turn green and shamrocks start popping up like daises, it can only mean one thing… St. Patrick’s Day is coming! For many of us, annual traditions have come to include corned beef and cabbage, turning whatever food and drink you can green, watching the bagpipers and Irish step dancers in parades, and pinching people and blaming it on the leprechauns. What does this have to do with a saint though, and why was he associated with snakes? Grab your shamrock shake, sit down, and read on to find out!
First, we need to take a look at who St. Patrick was or what we can gather about him anyway. Did you know that St. Patrick lived during the second half of the 5th century? That’s almost 1,500 years ago! This makes it hard to pinpoint exact details about his life and is one of the reasons so many legends surround him. Surprisingly, he wasn’t even born in Ireland; he was British, had been kidnapped as a child, and was taken into slavery in Ireland. He later escaped and returned to Britain but then decided to go back to Ireland as a missionary. He dedicated most of his life to converting the Irish people to Christianity. It is believed that he died on March 17, which is why this was the holy day celebrated in his name as the patron saint of Ireland and has become the day many people celebrate around the world now.
What does all of this have to do with snakes though? Great question! One of the biggest legends associated with St. Patrick is that he stood on top of a cliff and banished all of the snakes from Ireland into the sea. This legend has persisted because there actually are no snakes in Ireland, so what else could explain this phenomenon? Historians believe that the snake banishment was meant metaphorically. Snakes were often seen as symbols of paganism or even as a symbol for the devil in Christianity. By going to Ireland and converting many people, he was essentially “banishing” paganism from their country.
If St. Patrick did not actually banish the snakes, why are there no snakes in Ireland? Scientists have been researching to answer this very question, and it turns out, according to the fossil record, there never were any snakes in Ireland to begin with! Looking back even further in history to the Ice Age, we know that Ireland would have been far too cold for any reptiles to survive at the time because it was covered in ice. As the Earth began to warm and water levels began to rise, Ireland became separated from the rest of Europe before snakes had a chance to migrate over. Then once people began to settle in Ireland and brought plants and animals with them to domesticate, snakes were not among the species selected when they were picking food sources.
If you are one of those people who bravely made it through reading all of this but still aren’t the biggest fan of snakes, you aren’t alone! Many people today get more than a little nervous when it comes to snakes. There are many reasons, however, that snakes play an important role in the world and should not be banished from places where they are natively found. One of the biggest benefits to having snakes around is that they actually help control populations of rats and mice (which, I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t want to live in a world overrun by rodents!). So if you’re looking for an opportunity to give these awesome creatures a chance, head to our Reptile and Amphibian Discovery Center on your next visit to meet some of our slithery friends and learn more about them. In the meantime, happy St. Patrick’s Day from all of your scaley friends at the Lehigh Valley Zoo; we hope you have a shamrockin’ good time!
Written by Tara Mlodzienski
Conservation Education Specialist
Lehigh Valley Zoo | Schnecksville, PA