On St. Patrick’s Day, most revelers don’t remember Ireland’s patron saint for his role as a snake hunter.
However, legend has it that a Christian missionary rid the Irish shores of these crawling reptiles by converting the pagan peoples of Ireland in the fifth century AD.
It is said that when he undertook a forty-day fast on the hilltop, Saint Patrick drove off the attacking snakes by driving them back into the sea.
An unlikely story, especially if you know that Ireland is different in that there are no native snakes.
It’s one of the few places in the world – along with New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Antarctica – where you can roam without fear if you have a deep aversion to snakes.
But, according to scientists, Saint Patrick has nothing to do with it.
As Curator of Natural History at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, Nigel Monaghan studied the extensive fossil collections and other available records that list Irish animals. “There was never any mention of the presence of snakes in Ireland, so there was no one for St. Patrick to hunt,” Monaghan said.
So what happened?
Most scientists point to the last ice age, when temperatures on the island were too cold for reptiles, about 10,000 years ago. After the ice age, the surrounding seas may have prevented snakes from colonizing the Emerald Isle.
Once the ice caps and woolly mammoths retreated north, snakes returned to northern and western Europe, spreading to the Arctic Circle.
Britain, which had a land bridge with mainland Europe about 6,500 years ago, was colonized by three snake species: the venomous viper, grass snake, and smooth crown snake.
But overland communication between Ireland and Great Britain was cut off about 2,000 years ago by bulging seas from melting glaciers, Monaghan notes.
Among the animals that reached Ireland before the sea became an insurmountable barrier were brown bears, wild boars and lynxes, but “serpents never went so far. Snake populations are slowly colonizing new areas,” he adds.
Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center at Shreveport, agreed that the timing was not right to expand the range of these sensitive cold-blooded reptiles.
“There are no snakes in Ireland for the simple reason that they could not get there, the climate was not favorable for their presence,” he notes.
The rest of the reptiles also failed to reach the island, except for the gray lizard. It is Ireland’s only native reptile and must have appeared within the last 10,000 years, Mr Monaghan said.
So, if Saint Patrick didn’t know how to tell a snake from a lizard, where did this legend come from?
Experts willingly lean towards allegory. Serpents are symbols of evil in Judeo-Christian beliefs, like the snakes that caused the fall of Adam and Eve.
These animals were also associated with pagan customs, so Saint Patrick’s act of killing snakes can be seen as a metaphor for his Christianizing influence.
Irish people looking for snakes to hunt and scare will likely have to settle for the fragile slowworm, a non-native species of legless lizard often mistaken for a small snake.
According to the Irish Conservation Authority, first recorded in the early 1970s, this species was deliberately introduced to the west of Ireland in the 1960s.
However, the reptile does not appear to have spread beyond the limestone area of County Clare known as The Burren.
SNAKE IN THE IRISH PLAINS?
In the future, it is possible that snakes may be seen in Ireland, especially domestic snakes deliberately released by their owners.
“No alien species is safe for local wildlife,” says Monaghan. “The isolated nature of the island population makes Ireland very vulnerable to any introduction, whether well-intentioned or erroneous. »
Henry Kasprzyk, curator of reptiles at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPQ Aquarium, believes Ireland’s native wildlife will not be ready for snakes to settle. Invasive snakes such as the irregular boiga have already wreaked havoc on the ecosystems of Guam and other islands.
Getting rid of these unwanted creatures will also not be as easy as the legend of St. Patrick suggests.
“I don’t want to completely destroy the myth of St. Patrick,” says Katsprzyk. “I want to keep it partly alive. »