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Welcome all to a brand new season of Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories, and tradit
It’s almost time for St Patrick’s Day, and although our opportunities for celebrations and parades are slim in this year of quarantine and plague, it’s still a time to think about Ireland, and what qualities makes us unique and special as a nation. Everyone has a different answer for what makes Ireland uniquely ‘Irish.’ Strangely, though, one of the things Ireland is most widely known for is actually something it doesn’t have – snakes. Irish Catholics learn from an early age the reason for this – St Patrick our patron saint, banished snakes from Ireland forever, and none have since dared to touch the land he charmed. But is the story really as simple as that? Or could the legends of snakes, saints and Ireland’s beginnings stretch much further, with many more twists and turns? It’s time to take a look at Ireland’s strange fascination with an animal it never had – and the saints and heroes who kept them away. I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
Snakes have always played a major role in folklore, legends and religion. They are a uniquely symbolic animal. People read into them what they want to see in their cultures and the stories they tell. Snakes have a magic about them, and many pagan religions viewed them as having intense, and often female powers. . In their coiled bodies and shedding skin, they symbolise rebirth and renewal. In many stories and legends, snakes are guardians, watching over buried treasure or sacred sites. But their deadly venom and quick, silent attacks have also made them an animal that humans fear and mistrust, and the biblical story of Eve and the serpent has given snakes a darker reputation – one of temptation, cunning and evil. With the spread of Judeo-Christian mythology, snakes came to symbolise the pagan knowledge that was being cast aside in favour of a new unified faith. To banish snakes was therefore considered a heroic, and sometimes even a holy act.
In countries where snakes were a threat, people turned to deities, and later to Saints to protect them from harm. And in Gaelic tradition, for many years, serpents were associated with one saint in particular. And no, I’m not talking about St Patrick just yet. I’m talking about Brigid.
In Scotland on St Brigid’s feast day, it was said that a serpent would emerge from the ground, and people would sing a hymn in its honour, to calm it and stop it from attacking them.
Early on Bríd’s morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not harm the serpent,
Nor will the serpent harm me.
The people would also make offerings to the serpent, burning incense and pounding an effigy of it, to protect themselves from stings and bites in the coming year. This fascinating ritual is likely a much older tradition, beginning not with St Brigid, but with the Gaelic goddess Bríd on whom she is based.
Unlike Scotland, Ireland is a land without snakes. This is pretty rare, shared mainly with isolated or island countries such as Iceland, Greenland and New Zealand. In early Christian times, Ireland had a reputation as a deeply religious place – a land of saints and holy learning. The absence of snakes and many other reptiles in Ireland was held up by scholars and holy men as proof of the island’s sanctity. Donatus, a 9th century bishop, remarked “No snakes are creeping there with venomed guile, no raucous frogs disturb the rustling reeds.” Many people believed that there was something divine about the very soil of Ireland that made it intolerable to snakes. Gerald of Wales, writing in the 12th Century claimed that the charm was so potent that even if you attempted to bring a snake across the sea to introduce it to Ireland, it would die before the ship reached the shore.
So Ireland’s lack of snakes has been bound up for centuries with its deep Christian history, pretty much since Christianity arrived in the country. The reasons for our blissfully snake-free existence were always holy ones, always enshrined in our religious origins. But for several centuries, they actually had nothing to do with St Patrick. Instead, Ireland’s lack of snakes was said to be thanks to a much earlier snake banisher – Moses.
There’s an early Irish manuscript called Lebor Gabála Éireann – the book of the invasions of Ireland. It traces a legendary history of the Irish people all the way to Israel and Egypt, when Moses and his followers were wandering in the desert. It began with a couple, Nel and his wife Scota, who lived on the shores of the Red Sea. When Moses and the Israelites arrived after escaping slavery in Egypt, Nel and Scota saw how little the people had brought with them, and promised to share their goods with them for as long as they stayed nearby.
Nel and Scota had a son called Gaedil, and soon after the Israelites arrived, Gaedil was attacked by a snake. The snake wound its body tightly around the young child,, and everyone feared he would die. In desperation, Nel brought the boy to Moses, who prayed to God and struck the boy with his staff. The serpent was cleft in two, and Gaedil was left unharmed. For the rest of his life, he had a green scar around his body where the snake’s poisonous skin had coiled around him. Because of this, he was known as Gaedil Glas, or Gaedil the Green.
Moses laid a blessing on the boy, that no serpent would ever harm Gaedil or his descendents again. Gaedil and his family made a long and arduous journey over land and sea, searching for a place they could call home. Eventually, his descendants settled in Ireland, and when they arrived they brought Moses’ blessing with them. At once and forever afterwards, Ireland became a land free from poisonous creatures, and snakes.
Despite this absemce, snakes still found their way into Irish stories and legends. The medieval period brought with it a major trend in stories of legendary battles against monstrous heroes. Worms, dragons, snakes and serpents were worthy foes for a hero, and in Britain, tales of King Arthur and other chivalrous heroes fighting terrifying snakes abounded. Irish heroes were no different. Brian Boru’s son Murchad was hailed as banisher of snakes. The Ulster warrior Cuchulain has a particularly grisly story, where he killed a snake by reaching his hand deep into its throat, and ripping out its heart. But some of the greatest tales of snake vanquishing belong to the hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
In the ballad The Chase of Sliabh Truim, Fionn and his warriors finish a successful hunt, but are hungry for more adventure. Having killed “twenty hundred deer… and ten hundred boars” and having left “every field red with blood” the Fianna set out to Loch Cuan, where they come across a serpent of a very serious size. As the poem recounts “its head was bigger than a hill… a hundred heroes, though great their fury, might fit in the hollows of its two eyes / Greater than trees in a wood its teeth… bigger than a city’s gate were the ears of the serpent waiting us.”
The serpent tells them that it has come to seek combat with Fionn and the Fianna, all the way from Greece, and has killed many opponents on his way. Fionn bids his warriors to attack, but the serpent proves to be a fearsome opponent. It shoots “fiery showers” of its spines at them, and because of its tremendous size it is able to swallow a hero and his pack together. All seems lost when the serpent swallows Fionn Mac Cumhaill himself. But Fionn, ever the unvanquished warrior, takes his weapon in hand and cuts through the serpents body, to create a door on either side, through which the swallowed Fianna and Fionn himself can escape and finish the serpent off.
Fionn’s exploits against monstrous serpents, or péist as they were called in Irish, did not end here. The poem continues “What fell of monsters by Fionn till doom may not be reckoned… there was not a reptile in Ireland’s glens but he took by the force of his blows.” The blue serpent of the Erne, the monster of Lough Neagh, the shining serpent of the Shannon, and the two serpents of Loch Foyle were just some of the snakes vanquished by Fionn, who had a reputation for being just as fearsome a foe to reptiles as St Patrick was to become later.
Other members of the Fianna had their own adventures with serpents. Cónán, a slightly foolish warrior, made the grave mistake of throwing a woman’s shinbone into the waters of Fionnlough in County Donegal. It grew over night into one of the most fearsome snakes in Irish mythology – the Caorannach. It could suck men and cattle into its mouth from a mile away, and soon the local people were forced to offer up cattle in sacrifice to it every single day. When almost all the cattle in Ulster had been destroyed, and they had to purchase cattle from chieftains in the south to feed the monster’s hunger, the people began to threaten Cónán for causing them so much difficulty. So Cónán went with his knife to put an end to the Caorannach himself.
Just like Fionn, Cónán dove deep into the Caorannach’s belly, and cut his way out through a soft spot in the serpent’s side. He swam to the shore, and as the blood gushed from the snake’s body, it stained the water and rocks a deep vivid scarlet, so that for ever afterwards, Fionnlough has been known as Lough Derg in memory. As for Cónán, he didn’t escape unscathed. When he swam to shore, the locals and the Fianna saw that he had lost all of his hair, and most of the skin of his back, from being inside the snakes belly. From then onward, he was known as Cónán Maoil, – Conan the bald. This story is an Irish version of a much older Greek tale – of Hercules, who rescued Hesione from the belly of a sea monster, losing his own hair in the process.
So it’s safe to say that St Patrick was far from the only snake banisher in Ireland. And lots of tales of the Saint’s battles against serpents have simply been lifted from earlier stories of chivalrous heroes. But somehow, Patrick’s
St Patrick’s story is in many ways, the story of Ireland. It’s a tale of captivity, freedom and redemption. Patricius was born in the village of Taburnia in France. Even as a boy Patrick was reputed to have many divine abilities. He stopped a well from flooding, brought his sister and foster-father back to life from the dead, and before the astonished eyes of his nurse he made fire come from the ice chips he was playing with, and breathe out flames with his own breath. As he grew up, Patrick turned his attention to studying psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, learning them off by heart to sing.
At that time, pirates from Ireland were ravaging the borders of France, plundering the villages and kidnapping people to sell into servitude in Ireland. When Patrick was 16 years, he too was captured. He was sold as a slave to the Pagan Prince Milcho, and made to look after Milcho’s pigs on Sliabh Mis. Out there, with no distractions and only the pigs for company, it’s said Patrick prayed constantly, a hundred times a day and a hundred times a night, fasting and suffering through the elements.
Six years passed, and although Patrick grew to care for the Irish people and speak the Irish language, he continued to pray daily for his release from captivity. At last, an angel appeared to Patrick and showed him a hole that one of the pigs he minded had dug into the ground. When Patrick looked into the whole he found a pile of gold. He brought it to Milcho and with it was able to buy his freedom.
Not long after he had returned home, Patrick had another vision. In the dream, he heard the people of Ireland crying out to him to come back to them and teach them the word of the Christian God. Patrick knew this would be his mission in life. He spent the next years in religious learning until he was ordained a Bishop and returned to Ireland, ready to bring his faith to the pagan people.
Patrick did return to meet his former master Milcho a final time, hoping he might be able to convert him to his faith. He succeeded with Milcho’s two daughters, they were baptized by him and lived religious lives from then on. But Milcho was old, and bitter and afraid, and when he heard that Patrick was coming, he gathered his possessions and threw them into a fire, then jumped into the flames after them. Patrick, approaching Milcho’s dwelling from a neigbouring mountain, saw the flames rise high in the air, and suddenly the soul of his former Master appeared to transform into a fiery serpent, plunging into hell. A terrifying sight! Perhaps that is what gave the saint such horror and hatred against snakes?
Ireland at this time, so the monk Jocelin’s account goes, was suffering from three evil plagues. On the earth, evil-doers and magicians roamed the land. In the air a “great concourse of Daemons” flocked and flew, and most famously, from the water rose a great swarm of poisonous creatures, including snakes, frogs and lizards, who wounded men and animals with their stings and bites.
This three-fold plague was St Patrick’s way to prove himself, to make the grand gesture needed to win over the people throughout Ireland. So the legends go, Patrick raised his staff, and with it he compelled all these poisonous creatures to retreat to the high promontory of Cruachan-ailge, driving “the whole pestilent swarm” over the edge of the cliff and headlong into the ocean beneath them. His job not yet finished, Patrick turned to face the Isle of Man and other Islands where he had blessed and brought faith to their people, and again through prayer banished the snakes and reptiles from these locations also.
Many of the evil-doers and magicians, having seen this work, were ready to be converted by him at this point. And afterward, Patrick still had the flying demons to deal with, so he spent 40 days fasting on the cruachan, which we now know as Croagh Patrick, so that the creatures he banished might stay gone and the demons leave after them. The whole time he spent up there, the demons tormented Patrick, “fluttered around him like birds of the blackest hue, fearful in their form, their hugeness and their multitude, and striving with their horrible chatterings to prevent his prayer.” But as Patrick made the sign of the cross, the demons were driven away, to foreign lands that had yet to know the word of God. From this moment forward, so it was recorded by monks and in legend, even unto this time all venemous creatures and all fantasies of demons entirely ceased to exist in Hibernia. Many of Ireland’s winding rivers are said to have been carved by enormous serpents fleeing the land at St Patrick’s anger.
So Patrick ‘gave the snakes an awful twist and banished them forever.’ But there were some serpents who proved altogether more stubborn to defeat. A lot of the tales of St Patrick’s snake banishing have been adapted from the earlier legends I mentioned, with Patrick replacing Fionn and other Irish heroes as the snake battler of the story. And just like Cónán Maoil, Patrick’s fiercest opponent was the terrifying female serpent – The Caorannach.
In one of the most interesting legends of St Patrick’s battles with the Caorannach, the serpent spirit manages to escape him, and disguises herself by transforming into a beautiful woman. She seduced and married a hermit who lived nearby, and bore him two children, a boy and a girl. Eventually though, St Patrick discovered the Caorannach’s whereabouts, and came looking for her.
He met her husband at the door, but the man refused to let St Patrick in. ‘I don’t know you,’ he said, ‘and my wife doesn’t know you either.’
‘You don’t know me?’ said St Patrick.
‘No,’ said the man.
‘Well,’ said St Patrick, ‘you don’t know your wife either. I’m St Patrick, and that’s the Caorannach you’re married to!’
The man believed him, and let St Patrick in. Inside, the Caorannach was waiting. St Patrick lifted his crozier and banished her, in a flash of lightning, into a hole deep in the sea.
But now said the man to St Patrick, what about my two children? Do they have to be killed?
You would have to look at them, too kill them, said St Patrick.
That would be hard for me to stand, said the man.
Well said St Patrick, there is an easier protection. It’s hard for any father to stand to watch his two children die. I will make two dogs of them.
They’ll be alive? Asked the man.
They will, said St Patrick.
Good enough said the man.
With that, the saint patted the two children on the head, and turned them into dogs – the first two dogs in Ireland. And that is why, it’s said, that dogs have an evil side and a good side, because one side is with the man who owns them, but the other is with their mother the Caorannach, and her evil serpent ways.
A lot of the folktales about Patrick’s battling with serpents claim that he left some snakes behind. Some of them still hide out in Ireland’s lakes and rivers, waiting for the day of judgement, when they will be free to slither through Ireland’s soil again. Some even say you can see them, if you look closely enough, and that in times of storm amidst thunder and lightning, the serpent rises, ride the waves like a wild horse with a flowing main. So keep an eye out by lakes and rivers. Tread lightly, and watch where you walk. For the age of the serpent may well come to Ireland again.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. I’m so excited to be launching Season 2, and I’m delighted to see how many new followers I have since I last released an episode – welcome all, and looking forward to sharing the history of Irish folklore with you. You can find links to the sources and music from today’s podcast on my website – Unrealpodcast.com. The theme song is The Butterfly by Sláinte, and much of the music this episode was by Aislinn, available on the Free Music Archive online. Seasoned listeners may have noticed an improvement in the sound quality – mile buíochas to my brother Declan, who got me a microphone for Christmas! Glad to be putting it to use finally. If you enjoyed this episode and are looking forward to the new season, please consider leaving a review where you listen or on social media – it really helps to spread the word. Thanks to RT1_1, R A Poe, and Ricky Patrick who have done just that!
I’ll be back soon with a new episode – I think I’m going to lean into this time of sickness, and talk about the cures and customs Ireland had in the past for dealing with illnesses. So be sure to tune in. Until then, Go n-éirí an bóthar leat.