As this article from Slate acknowledges, very few concrete facts about Ireland’s patron saint have survived. Much that we think we know is merely legend. Keeping that in mind, did you ever wonder why Saint Patrick is credited with expelling snakes (not wolves, not badgers, not even demons) from the Emerald Isle?
I’m not going to dispute whether holy Padraic literally chased serpentine creatures from Ireland, but you have to admit that on a symbolic level the story is apt. Serpents have a long history in Christian iconography, representing the deceptions of the devil. As an early missionary to the island, the fifth-century monk we know as St Patrick was successful in converting many from their pagan superstitions, and for more than a millennium Ireland was known as one of the most thoroughly Catholic lands upon Earth. Since pagan gods have long been regarded as being inspired by fallen angels, who presented themselves as deities, there could be no more appropriate legend about the Christian monk who persuaded the Irish people to abandon their old beliefs and turn to the One True God, than to have him expel the snakes from Ireland.
Ireland, alas, seems determined to put its Catholic heritage behind it. This article on the site of the Irish broadcasting company, RTE, for instance, seems bent on debunking the idea that there ever were snakes in Ireland for Patrick to expel. It doesn’t really matter, though, whether there were any serpentine species native to the island of Ireland, since the legend’s power is in the spiritual truth it seeks to convey, rather than literal fact.
St Patrick stood for truth, shedding abroad in the ignorance of pagan hearts the Light of Christ. And today, despite the coming of a new spring, sometimes lately it seems that the world is getting a bit darker every day. When that happens, it’s time to put on the armor of light! For Saint Patrick’s Day, take a look at this old post, wherein you will find the wonderful prayer known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate: Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Now Arm Yourselves!
This post originally appeared on my literature blog, A Catholic Reader.
©2016 Lisa A. Nicholas