Saint Patrick and the Reptiles [1]

From The Wonders of Ireland by P. W. Joyce, 1911

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In every part of the country the people have a tradition that all poisonous reptiles were expelled from Ireland by St. Patrick; and the tradition is not of recent growth, but is, on the contrary, many hundred years old. Jocelin, a monk of Furnes in Belgium, who wrote a biography of St. Patrick in the twelfth century, relates this great Wonder in much detail. He tells us that before the time of St. Patrick Ireland was troubled with a three-fold plague of reptiles, demons, and magicians. As for the reptiles, "these venomous and monstrous creatures used to rise out of the earth and sea, and so prevailed over the whole island, that they wounded both men and animals with their deadly stings, often slew them with their cruel bitings, and not seldom rent and devoured their members." "The demons used to show themselves unto their worshippers in visible forms: they often attacked the people, inflicting much hurt; and only ceased from their baleful doings when they were appeased by foul heathenish prayers and offerings. After this they were seen flying in the air and walking on the earth, loathsome and horrible to behold, in such multitudes that it seemed as if the whole island were too small to give them standing and flying room. Whence Ireland was deemed the special home of demons. And lastly, magicians evil-doers and soothsayers abounded beyond what history records of any other country on the face of the earth."

So in those days Ireland must have been rather an unpleasant place to live in; and it was high time for St. Patrick to come.

Our biographer then goes on to relate how the saint cleared the island of the three plagues, expelling first the reptiles and then the demons from the top of Crochan Acla,[2] and converting the magicians from the worship of the evil one to the worship of God.

This narrative has been seriously discussed by not a few of our learned men. David Rothe Bishop of Ossory in the early part of the seventeenth century, maintains its truth; while Colgan, a far greater man, writing a little later, quite rejects it and remarks that Ireland must have been always free from venomous creatures; as in the most ancient Irish writings—many of them reaching back to a period long before the time of St. Patrick—there is no mention whatsoever of reptiles, though the other native animals are mentioned often enough. And Lanigan, in the last century, observes that if such a wonderful occurrence had taken place, it would have been recorded in our annals and in the early Lives of the Saint; which it is not.

Jocelin was the first, so far as I know, to commit to writing a detailed account of the expulsion of the reptiles and demons by Saint Patrick. It is highly probable that he combined, in the account he has left us, the written tradition and the popular legends prevalent in his day, throwing the whole into such shape as befitted a literary composition.

It is quite certain that this story, with all its varying versions, from Jocelin's Latin narrative to the popular traditions of the present day, took its rise from the following beautiful and tender and very ancient legend of Patrick's contest with demons on Crochan Acla, which we find in the Tripartite Life of the Saint, written in the Irish language in the tenth century or earlier.

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[1] Reprinted with modifications from the "New Ireland Review" (Dublin), for which journal I wrote this narrative many years ago.

[2] Cruachan Aicle, "Eagle Hill," which since the time of the Saint has borne the name of Croagh Patrick, a beautiful conical mountain rising over the southern margin of Clew Bay in Mayo, celebrated in legend all over Ireland.


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