St. Patrick's Day: How Patrick Drove the Snakes (The Pagans) From Ireland

St. Patrick's Day is the infamous Irish holiday that celebrates... the Irish, and to a lesser extent worldwide, St. Patrick himself. Wikipedia has a detailed look at his life here.

Here's the myth St. Patrick is most well known for:

Driving the Snakes Out of Ireland

The expulsion of all the snakes from Ireland is certainly the most popular of the stories told about St. Patrick.

Accompanied by the furious rat-a-tatting of a big drum, St. Patrick arrived at the hill from which he was going to banish the reptiles. The people who had gahtered to watch the spectacle cried out when the drum broke, because they believed St. Patrick's magic power wad dependent on it. A huge black snake slithered down the hill, laughing to see the saint so suddenly powerless. But just then an angel appeared and mended the drum. The drum was sounded and St. Patrick preached the sermon that drove the snakes and vermin from Ireland.

Two stories are told about the last snake in Ireland. An old serpent who lived in Lake Dilveen gave St. Patrick such trouble that he was left in the lake with the promise that the bishop would return "on Monday" to destroy him. St. Patrick entirely forgot about him and the serpent is said to be still alive in Lake Dilveen. Every Monday he comes to the surface, looks about questioningly, and says, "It's been a long Monday, Patrick."

According to the other story, the last snake refused to be driven away. St. Patrick had a box made and told the serpent to get in. "No," said the serpent, "it's too small."

"Nonsense," said St. Patrick, "it's just your size, try it and see."

"Very well," said the serpent, "I'll show you it's to small." So he crawled in, and sly St. Patrick snapped the lid shut and plunged the snake into the sea.

Because of the Ice Age seperating Ireland from the Continent, most scholars do not believe that there were any snakes in Ireland. So... where did this story come from?

HuffPo has an article with the background:

Previous to Christianity's ascent in Ireland, the Romans claimed the island, but only in a halfhearted manner. Rome never really "held" the island, the way that they had conquered and occupied Britain (or at least the parts of it south of Hadrian's Wall). In reality, Ireland at the time was a land of tribal Celtic "kings" who ruled over their people, and whenever they got bored (which, according to their myths, was quite often), they fought and raided cattle from neighboring tribes for entertainment and healthy exercise. The dominant religious figures were the Druids [The Pagans]. There was no written language, as the traditions of the people were all passed down in oral histories. Which means not much is actually known about the Druids, either. They were spiritual advisors to the tribal kings, and likely knew the secrets of the stars and the calendar -- mystical knowledge indeed to a tribal society.

They also, Irish schoolchildren are taught, had tattoos. Big tattoos of snakes, on their arms.

Which brings us back to Patrick's story. Patrick did not "bring Christianity to Ireland" (it had arrived previously, other Christians were already there when Patrick arrived), but Patrick was indeed Ireland's biggest evangelist (in the classic, rather than the modern, sense of the word). Patrick was a missionary to the unconverted parts of Ireland, and lived up to the stories of tramping all over the island, proselytizing and converting as he went. This part of the myth (which would later spring up in his name) was largely true, which is one reason why he's the patron saint of the island.

By bringing Christianity to so many of the Irish people, Patrick was a major instrument of Christianity supplanting the Druids. And, by doing so, Patrick "drove the snakes into the sea" in a metaphorical way. Because by the seventh century, the Druids had pretty much disappeared. 

Another interesting tibdit is how St. Patrick invented the Celtic Cross by merging Druid and Christian ideas:

There is a legend of how St. Patrick when preaching to some soon-to-be converted heathens was shown a sacred standing stone that was marked with a circle that was symbolic of the moon goddess. Patrick made the mark of a Latin cross through the circle and blessed the stone making the first Celtic Cross. This legend implies that the Saint was willing to make ideas and practices that were formerly Druid into Christian ideas and practices. This is consistent with the belief that he converted and ordained many Druids to lives as Christian priests.

Image from Wikicommons