What happened to all the snakes in Ireland? Did Saint Patrick banish them from existence? Yes, you heard it right. There are no snakes in Ireland. But the reason may not be their patron saint, but a scientific one.
Ireland, along with New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica, are the only places in the world where a person with an avidiophobia (fear of snakes) can roam without fear. Make sure you don’t find any snakes slithering past you in these five places.
But to get to the heart of the matter, let’s go back to Irish mythology, most likely to the Ice Age and find out why our serpent friends completely overtaken this beautiful country.
What is the legend?
There are many legends and traditions that the Irish are proud of. And that doesn’t always include wearing green. A particular legend is unique and interesting. It tells the story of Saint Patrick, who traveled from Britain to Ireland to preach Christianity. But in Ireland, he was attacked by a group of snakes, who were, most likely, preachers of Satan. Then St. Patrick waved his magic wand and banished every snake in the ocean. Cleanse the island of evil. As wonderful as it sounds, is it true? It is quite extraordinary that Ireland, in fact, has no snakes to boast of. But of course, if you’re not a believer, there’s another science-friendly theory.
What does science say about snake-free Ireland?
Nigel Monaghan is the Keeper of the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. He studied fossils and other historical records of Irish animals and found no trace of any snakes, even before the 5th century AD. So technically, St. Patrick couldn’t keep away snakes that didn’t actually exist.
The Ice Age is the reason why scientists believe this condition occurred. The Ice Age, which occurred about 24,000 to 27,000 years ago, kept the island of Ireland too cold for any reptile to survive. When the ice age ended 10,000 years ago, the planet Earth slowly began to warm up. The glaciers melted, the water flowed again, and life began to emerge. Flora and fauna re-colonized the islands from the European mainland. Some animals even swam across. But the snakes were not lucky. The water was very cold.
Why did you leave the snakes behind?
When life reappeared after the Ice Age, all the animals returned. But why did the snakes not return to Ireland? About 6,500 years ago, Britain already had a land bridge connecting the mainland to Ireland. But this link is broken. During this time, scholars believed that there were three snakes, the venomous viper, the grass snake, and the smooth snake, who began traveling towards Ireland from Britain. Ireland is separated from the rest of Europe by a 12-mile water gap – the North Channel – between Ireland and Scotland. The water was too cold for the cold-blooded reptiles to cross it. The animals that arrived before the ground link was broken were brown bears, wild boars, and lynxes. But the snakes were left behind. They moved very slowly. The snakes ran up against a barrier of cold water, says Jacqueline Gill, a Pleistocene ecologist at the University of Maine. And they had no bridges, no boats, no way to get there. That’s why there are no snakes in Ireland.”
The legless lizard is often thought of as a small snake.
If someone is diligently looking for snakes in Ireland, the legless lizard one might find in the calcareous grasslands of Ireland might give rise to false hopes. It is a kind of slow worm and non-native species of legless lizard. People often mistake it for a small snake. It was first recorded in 1970 and introduced to the West Island in the 1960s by the National Parks and Wildlife Services of Ireland. This slow worm, also called Anguis fragilis, resembles a small snake, with a round, elongated body about 50 cm long. It has a pointed head and no legs. Like a snake, this lizard, apart from a legless skeleton, leads a burrowing lifestyle.
Can the snakes return?
Experts believe that if pythons do return to Ireland, it will likely be through people keeping them as pets. But wildlife experts think that wouldn’t normally be a good move. For Ireland’s already established wildlife, any exotic species is a risk. It makes nature defenseless and vulnerable, even with the best of intentions. Snakes, if introduced, can destroy an ecosystem. But it will be difficult to introduce snakes, and if they are introduced, it will also be difficult to get rid of them again.
In a bizarre turn of events, Ireland’s first venomous snakebite was reported by the Irish Post in 2020, after a 22-year-old man was hospitalized after being bitten by his venomous pet snake, the puffer rattlesnake. Antivenin had to be shipped from Liverpool in the UK and, naturally, Ireland had none. Let’s hope these incidents don’t happen again, because Ireland certainly wouldn’t be prepared for them!
Snakes or the lack thereof are not the only facts that make this beautiful country interesting. Here are three more things to add to your bag of knowledge!
1 A room in an ancient monument in Ireland is illuminated for 17 minutes during the winter solstice each year by a beam of light that reveals mysterious inscriptions.
Newgrange is an ancient monument in Ireland, older than the oldest pyramid in Egypt. On the 21st of December each year, on the shortest day of the year, the sun shines through a small opening in the structure and floods the main room with light for 17 minutes. It’s amazing, mysterious, and feels out of this world. This Cave of Light has been described by many historians as being associated with the worship of the sun, and some say it belongs to the cult of the dead or supernatural beings. A study conducted in 1989 revealed that astronomy was an important aspect of the design. Newgrange builders intentionally built the structure to keep the light on for the 17 minutes of Winter Solstice. But most of this ancient monument is shrouded in mystery. Until now, no one knows for sure who built them, why and how.
2 You can save on your taxes if you are a writer, painter or sculptor in Ireland.
According to the Irish Tax Consolidation Act 1997, income earned by writers, composers, visual artists and sculptors from the sale of their work deemed to be original, creative and of cultural merit is exempt from tax. But there are rules. You must be a resident of the European Union or European Economic Area and nowhere else! So, if you are considering a career as an artist, now you know where to go.
3 There is a 279-mile trail in Ireland that is 300 million years old and part of the International Appalachian Trail.
The Appalachian mountain ranges are as old as our continents, and were created during the formation of Pangea. The Appalachian International Trail, which itself is 1,900 miles long, spans the USA, Canada, and a few other places around the world. The Ulster Ireland section of this corridor runs from beautiful West Donegal to the north coast in County Antrim. It is 279 miles long and crosses four counties – Donegal, Tyrone, Derry and Antrim. On average, it takes nine days to walk the entire stretch. Walking this trail is an experience like no other, filled with breathtaking beauty, historic towns, waterfalls, and natural scenery.
The Appalachian International Walk is the only trail in the world that stretches over the ocean.