This is a gently edited and updated version of last year’s post, shared again this year because I think the message is still needed and relevant due to the misinformation continually spread about Saint Patrick.
Today is St. Patrick’s Day, a yearly holiday celebrating Ireland’s favorite patron saint. While it’s a big event in Ireland (and used to be a very solemn occasion), in America it’s a green-dyed bacchanal where everyone is “Irish for a day” (let’s not even start on the horridly stupid “unofficial” St. Patrick’s Day celebrations on college campuses). For some modern Pagans (whether Irish or not), St. Patrick’s Day isn’t a day of celebrations, as they see Patrick, famously attributed with converting Ireland to Christianity, as committing something akin to cultural genocide.
“The “snakes” that Patrick drove out of Ireland were the Druidic priests, who had serpents tattooed on their forearms. Celebrating him is like celebrating Stalin or Hitler.”
Pagan author Isaac Bonewits called the day “All Snakes Day”, and penned songs calling for the return of the “snakes” that Patrick is famously attributed with driving out, since many claim the “snakes” are actually a metaphor for Pagans (Ireland hasn’t had real snakes in it since the last ice age).
“He did not banish the snakes: Ireland never had any. Scholars now consider snakes a metaphor for the serpent of paganism.”
The problem with most of this Pagan rage and sadness directed at Patrick for converting Ireland, is that it’s mostly untrue.
“The snakes he drove out of Ireland were not symbolic of druids, pagans, or goddess worshippers. They were, quite simply, snakes. The tale was lifted from the life story of St. Hilaire, who was said to have evicted the snakes in a section of France, as an explanation of why there are no native snakes in Ireland. That piece of plagiarism explicative text was added in the 10th century. Earliest versions of Patrick’s story don’t include it. They do, however, include direct claims of him besting druids in magical combat and argument, as well as having druids in his personal retinue. Catholic saints’ stories, by and large, do not truck in allegory. To cite a different reptile story, they really did mean to say that St. George killed a dragon. I have never seen anyone who’s bothered to study the way Irish saints’ lives were written down and embroidered take the snakes to be symbolic of anything. It is a neo-pagan invention to assign that story any degree of symbolism.”
Celtic Reconstructionist Brenda Daverin goes on to point out that Ireland was quite “pagan” for another century or so after Patrick’s death, and that Ireland’s conversion process generally wasn’t at the point of a sword, or completely successful. Just because it’s become the common folklore to equate snakes and pagans (popular even among Irish citizens) doesn’t make it true. So, since Patrick didn’t actually cast the literal or metaphorical snakes out of Ireland, I see no issue in wishing my Irish, Irish-descended, and Irish-loving readers a happy St. Patrick’s Day. Avoid the green beer, that stuff is just nasty.
ADDENDUM: For more on the history of St. Patrick’s day, criticism of the “leprechaunification” of Irish culture, and ideas the Pagans can use to celebrate this day on their own terms, do check out this post from P. Sufenas Virius Lupus.