St. Patrick’s Day is a cherished tradition in the United States, involving parades, leprechauns and even a one-day-only green river (in Chicago). But what’s it all about?
The legend claims it all began when the saint known as Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland in the fifth century. One version says he drove them into the ocean with his staff and another says he rang a bell that banished the reptiles.
There’s just one problem. Scientists say there were never snakes in Ireland in the first place.
According to a story in National Geographic, Irish scientist Nigel Monaghan cites a lack of snake fossils as proof that the reptiles never existed on the Emerald Isle. Monaghan, and other scientists, believe the lack of the slithery serpents is due to the relative isolation of Ireland, which was physically separated from Britain after the Ice Age when the land bridge connecting them was submerged by the melting ice caps.
Naturalist and college professor Dr. Curt Stager, who co-hosts a public radio show, explains that Ireland isn’t the only snake-free island in the world, although the phenomenon is rare.
In fact, snakes can endanger a unique island ecosystem. In Guam, the brown snake has decimated the local bird population because the island has no natural predators for the invasive reptiles. The snake infestation has become so dire that the snakes even slither up power poles and knock out electricity.
To combat the spread of the snake devastation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), coordinates operational efforts on Guam to prevent the snakes from leaving the island. Because the snakes often stow away on shipping containers, Guam has instituted tactics like using Jack Russell terriers – noted snake killers – to clear out outgoing cargo before departure.
So while snakes can clearly damage island ecosystems, if Ireland never had snakes, what’s the legend all about?
Most experts believe the snake story is an allegory. As a sign of evil, or paganism, as outlined by the History Channel’s list of debunked St. Patrick Day myths, the story is supposed to be symbolic, not scientific.
So feel free to wear the green without fretting about the scientific basis of St. Patrick’s Day. There’s nothing unscientific about a bit of fun!