There Are No Snakes in Ireland. Let’s Find Out Why!
What happened to all the snakes in Ireland? Did St. Patrick banish them from existence? Yes, you heard it right. There are no snakes in Ireland. But the reason may not be their patron saint, but rather a scientific one.
Ireland, along with New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica and are the only places in the world where a person with ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) can roam without fear. Be assured you will find no snakes slithering past you in these five places.
But to get to the heart of the matter, let us travel back to the Irish legends and, more likely, to the Ice Age and find out why our serpent friends skipped this beautiful country altogether.
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What is the legend?
There are many legends and traditions that the Irish are proud of. And it does not always involve wearing green. One particular legend is both unique and interesting. It tells the story of Saint Patrick, who traveled from Britain to Ireland to preach Christianity. But in Ireland, he was attacked by a group of snakes, who were, in all probability, advocates of the Devil. St Patrick then waved his magic wand and banished every single snake into the ocean. He cleansed the island of evil. Fascinating as it sounds, is it true? It is rather unusual that Ireland, indeed, has no snakes to boast of. But of course, if you are not a believer, there is another theory that is a friend of science.
What does science say about a snake-less Ireland?
Nigel Monaghan is the keeper of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. He has studied the fossils and other historical records of Irish fauna and found no trace of any snakes, even before the fifth century CE. So technically, St. Patrick could not banish the already non-existent snakes.
The Ice Age is why scientists think this condition happened. The Ice Age that happened about 24,000-27,000 years ago kept the island of Ireland too cold for any reptile to survive. When the Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago, the planet slowly started to warm up. Glaciers melted, water flowed again, and life started to appear. Plants and animals recolonized the islands from the European mainland. A few animals even swam across. But snakes were unlucky. The water was too cold.
Why were the snakes left behind?
When life sprang again after the Ice Age, all animals made their way back. But then why didn’t the snakes return to Ireland? Around 6500 years ago, Britain actually had a land bridge connecting the mainland to Ireland. But that link got broken. During this time, scientists thought that there were three snakes, the venomous adder, the grass snake, and the smooth snake, who started to travel towards Ireland from Britain. Ireland became separated from the rest of mainland Europe by a 12-mile water gap – the North Channel – between Ireland and Scotland. The water was too cold for cold-blooded reptiles to cross. The animals that reached before the land link was broken were brown bears, wild boars, and lynxes. But the snakes were left behind. They moved too slow. Jacquelyn Gill, an Ice Age ecologist at the University of Maine, says that the snakes ran up against the barrier of cold water. “And they had no bridges, no boats, no way to get over there. So that’s why there are no snakes in Ireland.”
A legless lizard is often mistaken for a small snake.
If someone is looking really hard for snakes in Ireland, a legless lizard that one may find on calcareous grassland in Ireland may raise false hopes. It is a kind of slow worm and a non-native species of legless lizard. People often mistake it for a small snake. It was first recorded in 1970 and introduced on the Western Island in the 1960s by Ireland’s National Parks and Wildlife Services. This slow worm, also called Anguis fragilis, looks like a small snake, with an elongated round body about 50 cm long. It has a pointy head and no legs. Like a snake, this lizard, apart from having a legless skeleton, has a burrowing lifestyle.
Can snakes make a comeback?
Experts believe that if snakes do come back to Ireland, it would, in all probability, be through people who keep them as pets. But wildlife experts think that this would not be a naturally good move. For an already established wildlife of Ireland, any alien species are a risk. It makes nature defenseless and vulnerable, even with the best of intentions. Snakes, if introduced, can destroy the ecosystem. But it would be difficult to introduce snakes, and if introduced, it would be equally difficult to get rid of them again.
In a strange turn of events, the Irish Post reported Ireland’s first venomous snake bite in 2020, after a 22-year-old man was hospitalized after being bitten by his pet poisonous snake, the puff adder. Antivenin had to be shipped from Liverpool in the U.K as, naturally, Ireland did not have any. Let us hope these incidents have not recurred after that, as Ireland would definitely not be prepared for it!
Snakes or the lack of them are not the only facts that make this beautiful country interesting. Here are three more to add to your bag of knowledge!
1 The chamber of an ancient monument in Ireland gets illuminated for 17 minutes during the Winter Solstice every year by a beam of light that reveals the mysterious carvings.
Newgrange is an ancient monument in Ireland, older than the oldest pyramid in Egypt. Every December 21st, on the shortest day of the year, the Sun shines through a small opening in the structure and floods the main chamber with light for 17 minutes. It is spectacular, mysterious, and feels out of this world. Many historians have described this cave of light as linked to Sun worship, and some say it belongs to a cult of the dead or supernatural beings. A study in 1989 revealed that astronomy was an important aspect of the design. Newgrange builders had deliberately built the structure to hold the light for 17 minutes on Winter Solstices. But most of this ancient monument is shrouded in mystery. Even now, no one knows for sure who built it, why, and how.
2 You can save your taxes if you are a writer, painter, or sculptor in Ireland.
As per Ireland’s Taxes Consolidation Act, 1997, income earned by writers, composers, visual artists, and sculptors from the sale of their works that are considered original, creative, and with cultural merit is exempt from tax. But there are rules. You must be an EU or an EEA resident and not a resident elsewhere! Therefore, if you are thinking of a career as an artist, you now know where to relocate.
3 There is a 279-mile-long trail in Ireland that is 300 million years old and a part of the International Appalachian Trail.
The Appalachian Mountain ranges are as old as our continents, created during the formation of Pangaea. The International Appalachian Walking Trail, which in itself is 1,900 miles, spans the USA, Canada, and a few other places around the globe. The Ulster Ireland section of this trail runs from the beautiful West Donegal to the North Coast in County Antrim. It measures 279 miles and crosses four counties – Donegal, Tyrone, Derry, and Antrim. On average, walking the entire stretch takes nine days. Walking this trail is an unparalleled experience, filled with breathtaking beauty, historical towns, waterfalls, and landscapes.
International Appalachian Walking Trail is the only trail in the world to span an ocean.
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