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The Snakéd Truth On:2005-03-17 13:02:23

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what happens to the nicer sort of animal once Mankind gets some new bee in his bonnet, you know the sort thing: the grand ideas Mankind gets every so often, like going on long sea voyages or inventing guns, and Oh! the dreadful results, and Oh! that we seem so powerless to stop it, and Oh! it makes us so sad: in fact I’m certain that, for example, at the time of the demise of the Dodo we all got decently dejected, and I'm sure too that we all paused to ponder the passing of the Passenger Pigeon, but so far as I know, no one gave a hoot over one of the worst of man’s destructions of wildlife---the tragic de-speciation that occurred in Ireland in the later 5th century. One would have expected Greenpeace to march or something, or to have at least organized a rescue mission, especially since the species loss was intentionally, almost spitefully caused, but absolutely nothing seems to have happened. In fact no one seems to have even blown the whistle on this dreadful, wanton act of cruelty until the chronicler Jocelyn of Furness1 reported it in the 12th century, nearly 700 years after the events! Now I think that this is disgusting and even though it is difficult at this late date to piece together the details of this disreputable episode, I would not be serving the higher interests of investigative reportage or the consciences of my listeners if I didn't try, so here goes.

St. Patrick was probably nearing his fortieth birthday when his unwarranted attack on Ireland’s snakes occurred. As Jocelyn puts it Patrick “gathered together from all parts of Ireland” all the reptiles and amphibians, and drove them “from the precipice of the mountain, headlong into the ocean by the power of his word!”

Now I admit that it may be said, in mitigation that Patrick seems to have been under quite a lot of pressure at the time, I mean he had been doing a lot of converting, and he was (truth to tell) historically2 an amalgam of several different people---and I'm sure you can just imagine how agonizing that sort of anti-schizophrenia must be, and it was Lent (or not3, depending on which side of the fence you were likely to sit on at the Synod of Whitby if you were still alive---which he wouldn't be, so there's even more stress there), and he had just fasted for forty days and no doubt the forty nights that preceded them certainly as as day... um ...follows night...., but it was a most unwise application of this new verbal technology, and, as is so often the case, it proved to be a most shortsighted act. You see when you indulge in that sort of wholesale irradication of predatory species you had better be fully aware of the ecological ramifications of your act, in particular you need to know what your predator predates.

And this is where Pat slipped up. When he did his verbal Exterminators-R-Us act he did not take into account what it was that snakes and the like ate. They ate small rodents, and small rodents are notorious carriers of disease, and of course with the downswing in snake population there was soon an upswing in rat and mouse population. By the early 6th century we are already reading of plague. In the Annales Cambriæ for example under the year 537 we read “et mortualis in ...hibernia fuit”, and that isn’t the worst of it. I strongly suspect that in the uncontrolled expansion of the rodent population we have found a heretofore unrecognized cause of the great potato famine. And one final point when Pat got into his paddy and removed the snakes, he opened a biological niche into which other predators could insinuate themselves, and in biological terms it is only a short time from the departure of the snakes from Ireland to the arrival of Henry II and the Normans.

Cheerio for now
Richard Howland-Bolton


1 Jocelyn of Furness
"... Jocelyn of Furness reported it in the 12th century" I cant find anything about him online apart from some of his saints lives, for example St Kentigern.

2 St Patrick
"... an amalgam of several different people" Apart from the Confessio there is nothing really known about him. He is probably at the very least made up of Palladius and the Patricius of the Confessio, and it may be that even his Patrick part can separated further into British and a Gaulish bits!

3 Lent
"... it was Lent (or not...)" Accepting the usual, though suspect, date for St Patrick's birth (around 410), and further, accepting (purely for this argument) that he's a he rather than a them, then if he did happen to be about forty at the time, then Pope Leo probably had changed Easter---maybe (or maybe not). Anyway this set up a divergence in timing between the Roman and Celtic Churches that wasn't settled until the Synod of Whitby in 664. Pat missed it by a mere 200 years.

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