Growing up in Ireland, we learnt in primary school that one of St Patrick’s stellar achievements was banishing the snakes from Ireland. We drew pictures of a statuesque bishop in grass green robes hitting grinning snakes on the head with his bishop’s staff, and as we got older we depicted the snakes’ flickering poisonous tongues and St Patrick driving them into the Irish sea.
Teachers would tell this story of St Patrick in the same way they told us about Santa Clause with a ‘be careful not to let the truth slip out’ kind of way. At the time, us kids did believe that Ireland had been ridden with wriggly snakes, a la the scene in Indiana Jones where he looks down and sees a pit of snakes.
Most of us grew up to think that this account of St Patrick eradicating snakes was a fanciful fantasy – I do not think any of my school friends believed it when we were leaving school – we saw it as an attempt to make the patron saint of Ireland look like a hero.
But what if the snakes were actually metaphors for evil spirits? I believe this was the case – in the Gospels Our Lord uses snakes as a metaphor for demons when He tells the apostles that when they will evangelise people and bring them to Christianity – they will walk among the nastiest of serpents and yet they will be unharmed because they have His protection.
Also, statues of Our Lady made to traditional specifications have Our Blessed Mother crushing the head of a huge, deadly python with her foot, the snake representing the devil who Our Lady restrains on behalf of us, her kids.
What if St Patrick was actually an exorcist who exorcised Ireland of ‘snakes’ or demons? If indeed it was the case then St Patrick was genuinely heroic, the real snakes that slither through the grass can only harm us physically, but an evil spirit that tempts us to do harm to others and ourselves to the point where we corrupt our souls can mean we may lose our souls for all eternity, a point made by Our Lord when He warns us not to be afraid of they who will kill our corporal fleshy body, but they who will kill our souls.
I was a primary school teacher in Ireland during my early twenties and I think I’d have risked getting sacked if I had taught kids that the snakes could have been symbols for demons that St Patrick drove out through the Catholic rite of exorcism.
Perhaps a very bold move would be if the religious education curriculum in Ireland could change and teachers would teach that Ireland had been a Pagan country which was initially very hostile to Christianity and that St Patrick had to drive out the demons that had a stranglehold on the souls of the people in the same way a snake strangles a mouse to death.