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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day!


Niall Nóigiallach is a very famous man (Nóigiallach is Gaelic for "having Nine Hostages"). He was an Irish King who lived from about 350 to 405 AD. The "nine hostages" refers to hostages that he kept from each of the places that owed him allegiance.

Niall was fond of raiding the coast of Roman Britain and on one of those raids he captured a man named Maewyn Succat, who became a slave in Ireland. Succat eventually escaped, returned to Britain, and became a Christian missionary. He then went back to Ireland to convert the Irish heathens to Christianity. We know Maewyn Succat by his Christian name, Patrick, or Saint Patrick.

Aside from converting the Irish heathens to Christianity, St. Patrick is famous for his skill as a magician. One of his most famous tricks was removing all the snakes from Ireland. At least that's what the legend says.

Connie Barlow describes A St. Patrick's Day Parable.(This is the same Connie Barlow I met last summer—the one who edited Evolution Extended.)
Ireland is a land of no snakes. It has no slithering serpents. There are no rat snakes in Ireland; there are no rattlesnakes; there are no garter snakes. There are no snakes at all.

The absence of snakes in Ireland seems to cry out for an explanation — but only if one regards or ventures to the island from outside: from England, say, or from continental Europe. To the indigenous Celts, there would, of course, have been nothing to explain. The Gaelic peoples no more needed to explain an absence of snakes on their island home than they needed to explain an absence of kangaroos. To those who came to Ireland from abroad, however, a dearth of serpents was a striking anomaly in need of an answer.

We humans must have answers. And so arose the legend of St. Patrick and the snakes. The reason Ireland has no snakes, the story goes, is that Patrick charmed all snakes on the island to come down to the seashore, slither into the water, and drown. So Ireland did once have snakes, but it has them no more. Patrick charmed them all into the sea.
She goes on to explain why there are no snakes in Ireland but I prefer to swtich to the website of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park for their explanation of Why Ireland Has No Snakes.

Now snakes are found in deserts, grasslands, forests, mountains, and even oceans virtually everywhere around the world. Everywhere except Ireland, New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica, that is.

One thing these few snake-less parts of the world have in common is that they are surrounded by water. New Zealand, for instance, split off from Australia and Asia before snakes ever evolved. So far, no serpent has successfully migrated across the open ocean to a new terrestrial home. As the world's oceans have risen and fallen over the millennia, land bridges have come and gone between Ireland, other parts of Great Britain, and the European mainland, allowing animals and early humans to cross. However, any snake that may have slithered it's way to Ireland would have turned into a popsicle when the ice ages hit.

The most recent ice age began about three million years ago and continues into the present. Between warm periods like the current climate, glaciers have advanced and retreated more than 20 times, often completely blanketing Ireland with ice. Snakes, being cold-blooded animals, simply aren't able to survive in areas where the ground is frozen year round. Ireland thawed out for the last time only 15,000 years ago. Since then, 12 miles of icy-cold water in the Northern Channel have separated Ireland from neighboring Scotland, which does harbor a few species of snakes. There are no snakes in Ireland for the simple reason that they can't get there.

[The book cover is from a book by Sheila MacGill Callahan (Author) and Will Hillenbrand (Illustrator). You can buy it on]

Reposted from St. Patrick Banished Snakes from Ireland with a snippet from Niall Nóigiallach - Niall of the Nine Hostages. You find out how Irish I am by clicking here.


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  2. Mainland Britain only has one species of venomous snake (the Adder), and two non-venomous (the Grass and Smooth snakes). We also have Slow Worms which look like snakes but are actually legless lizards.

    Adders might be able to survive in Ireland (given the opportunity) but the other two species of snake might find the climate too cold and damp.