"Saint Patrick Expels the Snakes from Ireland"
Seventeen days into March we mark the anniversary of a day that’s especially precious to fans of remembering holy times.
Everyone knows this. Ask any child. Is there a child near you? Say til it what did Saint Patrick do? and it’ll say to you back he invented the colour green so he could build County Armagh out of it.
Gordon Bennett lad, you'll reply, what else? Yes, that’s right. A hundred years ago, Saint Patrick said til the snakes “go on. Go. GO.”
He did do this. Like I said, everyone knows it. I got talking to a priest about it, but, and it transpired to me three pints along that he while he knew what had happened and when it happened, he had no notion why it happened, and him the collar hanging half off him but all in black all the same. Well well. “Looks like it’s time for a story, padre,” I said to him, and I’ll say now to you the story the very same.
Funny thing that this all came up when I was having a drink because the snakes did like a drink, too, and indeed it is for the snakes that we drink this day, traditionally. No man tells you that.
From asps and adders til cobras and constrictors, the lot of them would slide field to field and up and down the branches of trees looking after the different fruits, finding and then fermenting them in each other’s gobs according to how each lad’s unique poison would react with the fruit.
They’d deposit them in repurposed Nutella jars in the chapel to be shared with all the other lads who couldn’t make that sort of sup. Python venom would get you wine out of grapes, for example, but they couldn’t make cider worth the drinking with any apple in the land.
After a day’s brewing, they’d slither and settle into the churches for the night and set about having a grand auld time. This was especially troublesome during Novena season because the nightly masses meant they were there when they shouldn't have been more often.
Ireland’s snakes knew rightly they shared the island, but more often so than not they were sound lads who made every effort to clean up after themselves. Sadly, it was an inarguable fact as felt by the human parishioners that on account of the particular quality of their drunken slime that you could always tell when the snakes had had a lock-in, a term which was originated during this period after the emerging practice of smaller snakes accidentally falling asleep in keyholes and preventing the sacristan and his squad of altar boys from accessing the premises to light candles, distribute missals and buff the seats with cedar scented cloths as was the one and only way even then.
It was a great time to be a snake, surely, but less fun was being had by the Catholic church who only advocate for that rocket fuel wine they give til you when you’ve to hand out communion because Jesus said when you’ve to give out bits of my body it’d be best approached half cut, being that the whole notion’s so mental. Overall, the lads in the black weren’t desperate happy about the consumption of alcohol, the smell and slide of the slime and the general prevalence of the self same animal that bit Adam of Eden so hard that God had to invent the first prosthetic leg only days after designing the standard pink model. The people, too, complained to the priests, so the priests spoke to man upstairs. Something needed done.
Now’s as good a time as any other for Patrick to enter his own story, albeit not yet as Saint.
At this stage, Father Andy Patrick was still on his Saints’ Masters and nearing graduation. God, conscious of the growing human reluctance to share the emerging Catholic island with a bunch of scaly hooligans and wary of having to grade Patrick’s dissertation in the middle of an especially busy Easter, saw the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.
Enterprisingly, He decreed He would eschew the typical dissertation in favour of some practical coursework, reasoning that there was no reason it couldn’t be more in format like the less-analytical leaving cert. Chances are, being busy as the only God anyway, He hadn’t the time or patience for marking something written in a language he’d invented but hadn’t learned to read yet. He’d give the job to the student.
Patrick and the snakes, as it happened, got on well. He wasn’t averse to a tipple himself, and had even translated for himself cider recipes the cornsnakes had given him when they were just high enough on their own supply to forget the clause of secrecy they’re all made to swear to.
He was no risk, though. Patrick was easy enough going for a man sent alone to an island to convert its entire population to a new religion, and his course was so stressful that he welcomed the regular breaks, spending whatever free time he could get away with huddled around with the snakes, giddilly listening to their stories about the comparative silliness of Paganism and paying for poitin with impressions of all the other priests that the snakes hated. He played Father Barry like a fat pirate who’d run over his son, and the snakes loved it. Or he’d tell them about Monsignor Tony, who got locked in a haunted mahogany cabinet and was kicked off the island when he emerged because the ghosts had turned him Chinese. There was no shortage of laughter shared.
The coming betrayal, such as it was, is thought to explain why snakes have since tended to be in such a bad mood all the time.
After word came down from the boss, Patrick organised a session to celebrate the midway point of Lent at St. Judas’s in Ballycastle and put the word out that all snakes were to attend. The snakes were still subjects of the parish, and as such were made aware that the strict penalty imposed for those who did not attend was permanent banishment from the island, an irony that belied Patrick’s wickedness in the art of deception that often surprises scholars unfamiliar with his hagiography. More generous historians suggest this may have been a means of detachment, a distancing for Patrick from the inevitable act of turning heel on his friends.
Still, the Pagan love for living had corrupted the man suitably enough that he intended to see the party through before committing the deed. While by the next night’s mass he’d have driven his companions across the ocean, drank of forbidden nectars and probably shared from the confessional booth a tale too many, Patrick would never have to himself confess to being a liar. Regardless of how the night would end, he’d organised a session, and a session would be had.
Michael Parkinson spoke to Saint Patrick about the night many years later in a rarely-seen broadcast. Watching the interview carefully is very revealing.
“The snakes were good drinkers,” Patrick began. “There were never fights, nobody poked at any man or wound him up, no. Nights with the snakes were stories being told, stupid confessions, thoughts and worries, where was the country going, would they get into heaven, that sort of thing. Lads that said stupid things got slags like, aye, but we were a gentle crowd on pints. They were a gentle crowd.”
Parkinson asked what sort of things they talked about.
“Ah. Like I say, stupid things. Snake things, mostly, I was outnumbered in that regard really, but they’d talk about things we could all talk about, as well. Lummox was the largest snake, cut out of stone, this buck. You could have put him in pictures, nowadays like. Like Lummox would say he was concerned that he’d a new freckle or mole he didn’t recognize, and is that me dying, am I destined for the ground grave, oh God… aha, slip of the tongue…”
Patrick wasn’t known for swearing and, laughing, he looked over his shoulder, which in turn set the interviewer off too. A man hangs out with snakes would need a sense of humour, and making the most of his blunder says a lot about the company he chose to keep.
“Sorry Mike. Aye anyway but, Lummox says what if it’s scale cancer like, and Lummox is known to be a hypochondriac, I don’t even think we knew what to call it then, but let’s just say no man was ever surprised to hear the big lad was dying by a Tuesday tea-time, you know?
“And sure enough Long Francis wraps the tail tip around him, drags him over til us, the two of us was talking low in the corner, a real late-session chat like, and without even so much as a proper look he goes and flicks the mole straight off him into the fire and the lads are all watching and let this almighty cheer out. “Jaysus boy” – his words, now, not mine, aha – “did ye even look at the fuckin’ thing? Some berry just, some dot of something from out of the forest like. Away back til your claret you Fancy Dan-Man, you”, I remember he said to him. Lummox was a worrier and a wine man.”
Parkinson asked Patrick about Long Francis and the change in his tone was immediate.
“I’ll tell you about Francis. Frank, soon as that’s happened, turns to me, dead into my eyes like, and says “I’m forever looking after these ones, Pack. Problem solving, listening til worries, keepin them right. I should get into your game, wha?”
Recounting this detail, Patrick fell silent. Parkinson was visibly relieved as he started up again, but not after a moment’s awkwardness.
“And I said to him no. You don’t want to be in my game Frank. He asks me then what the big fella’s like to work for, something like that, and thank flip for the distraction of Patsy V who had all the boys howling because he was so lit up he couldn’t slide forwards and had started to slither backroads up the fireplace towards the ceiling, panic writ across his face, and Francis slid off to sort him out, laughing away to himself like.”
The night wore on and away into dawn. As Christ struggled with the burden of expectation, the burden of a certain, desperate and immediate future, so too it seemed Patrick did struggle.
The gang of them wound up on the shore as the sun inched above the Irish sea and draped across the Mull of Kintyre a blanket of golden reds, and it was the strength of Patrick’s bond with the snakes’ defacto leader Long Francis that made the scene less of a scene than he had anticipated when the moment finally came to tell him of sainthood’s price.
“Is this serious, our kid?”, Francis asked his friend. Patrick, who had been staring at the ground for some time, met the snake’s gaze. “Big man says so, Frank. I’ll not the get stripes otherwise. It’s themselves or yousins, but sure you know yourselves what the islanders are like, there’s more brains in a false face. You boys can look after yourselves.” As the snakes, scattered across the beach, dispersed their noise up into the morning mists further down the strand, Long Francis turned to Patrick and at once uncoiled and stood, his entire length from the tip of his tail bolt upright enough to tower over Patrick by twelve inches or better. After a stare so long it could have ended either way, he absolved his drinking partner, his confidant and his friend with the embrace of forgiveness.
Sobered, Long Francis turned and recoiled once again to earth, and with only the word ‘lads’ he made for the water. Some of the smaller snakes, and indeed Lummox, wobbling from wine but sensible enough to hurt, looked back to Patrick, destined by lunchtime to lunch as a Saint. He said with a nod that this was for real, and the snakes left the island forever.
With the nuisance clear off the island and no paperwork to pore over, God had a much easier assessment to grade on the eighteenth, for which His hangover was especially grateful. Himself had been drinking the night before on account of the break in his Lenten renunciation of shandies, which takes us back to the other reason we celebrate this day – Jesus’s own mid-Lent gauntlet in the middle of the desert after the divil rode out to him in a BMW full of Tayto sandwiches and dirty magazines.
While Jesus did indeed have a look (and no more) at a selection of the Quare Fella’s literature, no sandwich was took that day, and with this triumphant abstinence he invited Lent observers throughout all of time to come to have a break for the day in his memory and enjoy the run of themselves that he denied himself in all that was good and holy in thwarting the whim of the dark lord Satan.
It is thought that Long Francis’ army of snakes must have somehow disbanded as a single tribe once they made it to Scotland, as neither Scotland, Wales or England is known to have an Ireland’s worth of snakes in her. Still, the memory of St Patrick’s betrayal was one he was quick to take ownership of – he insisted, as a condition of his sainthood, that he was to be depicted with a staff of equal height in all official renderings and iconography as a tribute to Frank’s final embrace, and as a reminder to be ever mindful of the cost of his success. We drink this day to celebrate St Patrick’s own celebration of friendship, fraught with the conflict of duty and devotion, and to celebrate the sacrifice inherent in the Christian celebration of the gift of living.
Celebrate, then, this anniversary. Celebrate for Patrick, who sacrificed the mortal right of friendship to better our country. Celebrate for Christ, master of his domain. And celebrate for Long Francis, whose good grace has often and long gone untold. As they say in Ballycastle to this day – ‘ever may our thirst we slake with the sup of snakes’.