The Myths And Legends Behind Ireland’s Lack Of Snakes

(Left: Bede illustrated by James Doyle Penrose (1862-1932), center: Common snake depicted in the book of M. C. Cooke (Mordecai Cubitt), c. 1893, right: St. Patrick from the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Flickr)


An interesting fact about Ireland is that it has no native snake population, besides those found in zoos or kept as pets. From what scientists have determined, the lack of snakes in Ireland dates back before the end of the last major Ice Age around 8,000 BCE. During the Ice Age, the climate in Ireland was deadly to snakes, and by the time the temperature became more hospitable, snakes still had not been able to migrate to the Emerald Isle before rising water (caused by glacial shifts and melts at the end of the Ice Age) separated it from the rest of Britain around 6,500 BCE. England is said to have been connected to mainland Europe for a few extra thousand years (until around 4,500 BCE), allowing it to be populated by species such as grass snakes, smooth snakes and adders. Ireland, however, remained snakeless, without even a hint of fossil evidence to be found, suggesting that no native snake species have ever lived in Ireland.

Science, even though it has the facts in this case, definitely does not have the special flair present in the folklore, myth and legend that was developed by ancient and medieval people to explain the absence of snakes in Ireland. The more popular of the tales is the miraculous feat attributed to the 5th-century apostle to Ireland, St. Patrick. As the story goes, St. Patrick managed to corral all of the snakes of Ireland together and drive them entirely off a cliff into the depths of the ocean.

The story of St. Patrick clearing Ireland of snakes was probably not known to another important clergyman of the British Isles, named Bede (c. 673-735). Venerable Bede made no mention of St. Patrick in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People—instead, he thought a man named Palladius was the most important missionary to Ireland. As a result, Bede included his own theories (containing nothing to do with St. Patrick) as to why Ireland has no snakes. Some readers of Bede’s history think he wrote the passage with a sense of sarcasm, which he, indeed, was known to use on occasion. Yet, the statements are still up for interpretation. This is the peculiar passage in Bede’s History that suggests that Ireland has a mystical resistance to snakes and all things poisonous.

“There are no reptiles, and no snake can exist there; for although often brought over from Britain, as soon as the ship nears land, they breathe the scent of its air, and die. In fact, almost everything in this isle confers immunity to poison, and I have seen that folk suffering from snake-bite have drunk water in which scrapings from the leaves of books from Ireland have been steeped, and that this remedy checked the spreading poison and reduced the swelling” (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Chapter 1).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.


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