March 17, 2021

Saint Patrick and the Legends of the Snakes and the Shamrock

During Great Lent in the year 441, Patrick retired to a mountain in Connaught to commune alone with God. He fasted forty days and forty nights. He wept until his chasuble was soaked with tears. The mountain Croagh Patrick - or Patrick's Hill - is 2,510 feet above the waters of Clew Bay. It is what the Irish call their Holy Mountain. Once a year in July, a pilgrimage is mad to the little chapel on its crest. Some forty thousand pilgrims have climbed the mountain in one day, many  often removing their shoes and socks before ascending a hard path on their bare feet. Now many believe that during Saint Patrick's sojourn upon this mountain that he banished all snakes from Ireland. The life of Saint Patrick, however, has been long shrouded in legend. In reality, the account of Saint Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland was furnished some seven hundred years after Patrick lived, to explain Ireland's freedom from snakes.

Monk Jocelyn of Furness, in the early 13th century, wrote one of Saint Patrick’s first biographies, and to him is credited the association between a snakeless Ireland and the miraculous intervention of Saint Patrick. He described the story like this:

“Therefore he, the most excellent pastor, bore on his shoulder the staff of Jesus, and aided by the angelic aid … gathered together from all parts of the island all the poisonous creatures into one place; then compelled he them all unto a very high promontory … and by the power of his word he drove the whole pestilent swarm from the precipice of the mountain headlong into the ocean.”

However, Gerald of Wales, a contemporary of Jocelyn of Furness, was skeptical of this claim, as he wrote in his The Topography of Ireland:

"Of  all  sorts  of  reptiles,  Ireland  possesses  those  only  which  are  harmless,  and  does  not  produce  any that  are  venomous.  There  are  neither  snakes  nor  adders,  toads  nor  frogs,  tortoises  nor  scorpions,  nor dragons.  It  produces,  however,  spiders,  leeches,  and  lizards;  but  they  are  quite  harmless.  Hence  it  may  be said, or even written, pleasantly, as well as with historical truth: “In France and Italy the frogs fill the air with  their  croakings;  in  Britain  they  are  mute:  in  Ireland  there  are  none.”  Some  indeed  conjecture,  with what seems a flattering fiction, that St. Patrick and the other saints of that country cleared the island of all pestiferous  animals;  but  history  asserts,  with  more  probability,  that  from  the  earliest  ages,  and  long  before it  was  favored  with  the  light  of  revealed  truth,  this  was  one  of  the  things  which  never  existed  here,  from some natural deficiency in the produce of the island."

Gerald was right from a historical perspective. As early as the 3rd century, the grammarian Gaius Julius Solinus wrote of Ireland:

"In that land there are no snakes, birds are few, and the people are inhospitable and warlike."

And in the 8th century, Venerable Bede opened his Ecclesiastical History of the English People with these words about Ireland:

"No reptiles are found there, and no snake can live there; for, though snakes are often carried thither out of Britain, as soon as the ship comes near the shore, and the scent of the air reaches them, they die. On the contrary, almost all things in the island are efficacious against poison. In truth, we have known that when men have been bitten by serpents, the scrapings of leaves of books that were brought out of Ireland, being put into water, and given them to drink, have immediately absorbed the spreading poison, and assuaged the swelling."

What is interesting about the last two sources is that neither ascribes the lack snakes in Ireland to Saint Patrick or even a miracle, the former because he pre-dated Saint Patrick, but the latter would surely have recorded it just as he recorded many other miracles of the Saints.

Scientists also say Gerald is right. The island was too cold for snakes during the last Ice Age, up until about 10,000 years ago. And it has been separated from Europe for some time — unlike Britain, which had a land bridge up until about 6,500 years ago — so snakes couldn’t get there once things warmed up.

The Quaternary glaciation period began around 2.6 million years ago and is, surprisingly, ongoing. At the moment we’re living in an interglacial period, where the ice sheets have receded but have not fully disappeared. These fluctuations in the freezing and unfreezing of ice cause sea levels to lower and rise, which in turn reveals or submerges land masses. During the current glaciation period, Ireland has been covered intermittently with ice sheets which made it pretty inhospitable to cold-blooded fauna due to low temperatures. When the latest round of ice receded, the Irish landscape had been remodeled and was left as an island as sea levels rose which further prevented many animals from being introduced.

As with other islands in similar situations during past glaciations, such as New Zealand and Greenland, and extreme north or south landmasses like most of Canada, Siberia, and Antarctica, snakes are not native to Ireland. The only known land reptile species that is native to Ireland is the viviparous lizard, which makes its home across the Eurasian landmass.

The Shamrock

Having explained the truth behind the legend of the lack of snakes in Ireland, we can now explain the legend behind the shamrock and its association with Saint Patrick. The account claiming that Saint Patrick introduced the shamrock as a symbol of Ireland, by using it as a visual aid to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity, was written down only about three hundred years ago. The first mention in literature of the shamrock in connection with Ireland was the 16th century, when English writers reported it as part of the Irish diet. Some conjecture that the good luck associated with shamrocks could go back to ancient times when it was considered a defense against the malevolent power of witches.

The fact of the matter is, the association between the shamrock and Saint Patrick began around the 17th century, when the shamrock’s importance began to converge with the religious celebration of the Saint’s feast day: Those living in poverty still wanted to look nice at church, and luckily for them, an appropriate adornment was growing on the ground outside their homes. Eventually, the tradition of wearing the shamrock on Saint Patrick's Day continued to catch on more widely.

The Irish botanist and cleric Caleb Threlkeld wrote a treatise on Ireland’s native plants in 1726 that explained the shamrock as the country’s national symbol, and asserted its significance in the context of Saint Patrick’s Day. Threlkeld wrote:

“This Plant is worn by the People in their Hats upon the 17th Day of March yearly, (which is called St. Patrick’s Day.)”

Continuing to explain why the plant was relevant to that day, specifically, Threlkeld said:

“It being a Current Tradition, that by this Three Leafed Grass, he emblematically set forth to them the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.” (The writer then goes on to remark on the “debauchery” and “excess in liquor” that was partaken in on that sacred day.)

It seems, therefore, that when the people started wearing shamrocks on Saint Patrick's Day in the 17th century, the tradition around it as it being a way by which Saint Patrick explained the mystery of the Holy Trinity was formed, perhaps by some monk or cleric.

When a wave of Irish immigrants came to the U.S. in the 18th century, there were no shamrocks growing in New York or Boston or San Francisco. So, while they celebrated their heritage with parties and parades, they substituted the color green and images of the shamrock for the plant itself. The first U.S. Saint Patrick’s Day parade was celebrated in Boston in 1737 then in New York City in 1762.

When Hallmark looked to honor Saint Patrick’s Day in the 1920s, the design they should use on their greeting cards was clear. The most popular symbol was the shamrock. The company actually started with postcards of shamrocks in 1910-1915, before making official cards for the holiday itself.