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I've read that the common story about St. Patrick ridding Ireland of "snakes" is actually a reference to ridding Ireland of druids and other pagans. Some sources say that he accomplished this through his preaching of Christian principles, but other sources say that he accomplished this through more violent means.

Here are some examples of the claims:

What evidence is there for what really happened, and what St. Patrick's role was?

  • It's not clear what claim you are skeptical about, can you elaborate or provide an example? – Sklivvz Mar 18 '14 at 10:50
  • Yeah, this needs to be reworded for Skeptics as questioning a notable claim. If you could find an example of someone claiming St. Patrick killed/converted Druids and that that is the origin of the holiday, you could question that. It's a good question, by the way, and I've +1'd because I think with a minor edit it would be great. – William Grobman Mar 18 '14 at 19:05
  • There never has been any snakes on Ireland.[news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/… – liftarn Jun 30 '14 at 8:46
  • Since it is uncertain exactly when St. Patrick preached in Ireland, and it is uncertain exactly when paganism was totally replaced by Christianity in Ireland, it seems likely that there were numerous "snakes" - or pagan Druids described as snakes - in Ireland long after St. Patrick died in 457, 461/62, or 493, or some other date. Of course the snake metaphor was probably created centuries later when nobody remembered when the last druids lived anyway. – M. A. Golding May 17 '18 at 21:16
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Well, yes and no. The earliest biographies of St. Patrick do relate how he defeated druids and magicians, sometimes in supernatural warfare. The Vita tripartita Sancti Patricii has several stories like the following:

Enna saw the druids (magi) wishing to kill Patrick, and he said to his son Conall, "Go and protect Patrick, that the magi may not kill him." Patrick perceived them, and ethereal fire burned them, to the number of nine.

But the much later legend about getting rid of "snakes" (which didn't exist in the first place) really is a story about a massive group of venomous creatures who were driven off a hill, as we learn in Jocelyn's 12th century Life of Patrick:

Even from the time of its original inhabitants, did Hibernia labor under a threefold plague: a swarm of poisonous creatures, whereof the number could not be counted; a great concourse of demons visibly appearing; and a multitude of evil-doers and magicians. And these venomous and monstrous creatures, rising out of the earth and out of the sea, so prevailed over the whole island that they not only wounded men and animals with their deadly sting, but slayed them with cruel bitings, and not seldom rent and devoured their members. And the demons, who by the power of idolatry dwelled in superstitious hearts, showed themselves unto their worshippers in visible forms; often likewise did they, as if they were offended, injure them with many hurts; unto whom, being appeased with sacrifices, offerings, or evil works, they seemed to extend the grace of health or of safety, while they only ceased from doing harm. And after was beheld such a multitude of these, flying in the air or walking on the earth, that the island was deemed incapable of containing so many; and therefore was it accounted the habitation of demons, and their peculiar possession. Likewise the crowd of magicians, evil-doers, and soothsayers had therein so greatly increased as the history of not any other nation doth instance.

And the most holy Patrick applied all his diligence unto the extirpation of this threefold plague; and at length by his salutary doctrine and fervent prayer he relieved Hibernia of the increasing mischief. Therefore he, the most excellent pastor, bore on his shoulder the staff of Jesus, and aided of the angelic aid, he by its comminatory elevation gathered together from all parts of the island all the poisonous creatures into one place; then compelled he them all unto a very high promontory, which then was called Cruachan-ailge, but now Cruachan-Phadruig; and by the power of his word he drove the whole pestilent swarm from the precipice of the mountain headlong into the ocean.

It is interesting how these early hagiographies have been completely forgotten. Even Wikipedia repeats the confused muddle posed in this question about "snakes possibly meaning pagans". St. Patrick's tussles with druids are well-documented in sources dating to soon after his lifetime.

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    I'm confused. You answer is "There are some fantasy ghost stories about Saint Patrick from the 9th-12th Centuries." But, did he convert/fight pagans in real life or not? – Oddthinking Oct 8 '14 at 8:04
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    @Oddthinking: Depends... which historical sources do you want to discount as "fantasy ghost stories"? :) – Sean Duggan Oct 8 '14 at 13:27
  • @SeanDuggan: The ones that refer to people being protected by "ethereal fire" and a "concourse of demons visibly appearing" would be a good start. Let's see how we go from there. – Oddthinking Oct 8 '14 at 14:02
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    @Oddthinking Ah, so maybe the Irish Annals, but possibly not even those. it's one of those issues with ancient history... so much of the material that survives is from the entertainment media of the day. Imagine how future generations might regard us if all they had to work off of was Sun and Maxim. – Sean Duggan Oct 8 '14 at 14:56
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    I think there's some pretty simple logic that can be applied: (1) We know Druids existed in Ireland (2) We know Ireland was converted to Christianity (3) Christians don't like pagans (4) St. Patrick was a Christian (5) Druids are pagans... and combine this with (6) There is a written record of St. Patrick contending with Druids. Say what you like about supernatural fire; this was an epic poem meant to be sung over three days at the feast of St. Patrick, so it's as Sean says. – Avery Oct 8 '14 at 21:00

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