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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Busting Irish Myths: #4: Snakes

This is the fourth in a series of blogs about common Irish myths. One that is prevalent to this day - and eagerly spread by the Irish themselves on Saint Patrick's Day - is that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. It's an intriguing notion, but it's not true.

What is true is that Ireland doesn't have a snake on it.

St. Patrick didn't drive all the snakes into the sea during a 40-day fast as reported, because there were none to drive out. In ancient times (prior to 10,000 years ago) Ireland was too cold for snakes to survive there. In the past 10,000 years, the fact that Ireland is surrounded completely by water keeps the snakes from migrating to the Emerald Isle from neighboring countries. And the Irish government has very strict regulations about importing snakes - they are simply not allowed, as pets or otherwise. If any escaped and multiplied, the ecosystem could not support it and could be dramatically effected, according to scientists.

Ireland is one of only a few places on earth in which snakes do not exist. Other places are: New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Antarctica.

When I visited Ireland this year, I found it fascinating that there were no bugs. I am sure there are some somewhere - but in the trips I've made there, I have only seen the smallest of spiders and no beetles, cockroaches, or other insects that are common in the southern United States (and elsewhere.) Again, it may remain too cold for most insects to flourish, and being an island, it is unlikely for insects from neighboring areas to colonize there, unless they are unwittingly brought in with travelers.

The nearest thing to a snake that Ireland has is a worm - called the "slow worm", it is a blind and legless lizard. It is only found in the Burren section of the island (in County Clare), and was only discovered in the 1960's. They can grow to 50cm (19 inches) long and they can live to be 30 years old in the wild or up to 54 years old in captivity. They feed on worms, slugs and insects. It might look like a snake in the picture, but it doesn't have scales like a snake, and it blinks like a reptile. They can also have visible ears.

The slow worm is protected in the United Kingdom, which includes Northern Ireland.