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Saint Patrick and the Snakes

Saint Patrick and the Snakes

Moral: Help will always be given if we know how to ask for it.

The High King of Ireland was at his wits end. His face looked as if it had been carved from granite as he stared moodily at the long line of his subjects queuing up to demand an audience with him. The air at his court buzzed with furious complaint. The people were angry and with good reason. The green land of Ireland was suffering from a plague of snakes.

The sinister reptiles were everywhere. It had reached the stage where people didnt dare sit down on a chair without checking to see that there wasnt one hiding beneath the cushion and no one would think of putting on their boots without shaking them first to see if a snake fell out.

You must do something, Sire, cried the people.

Yes, I know, he replied miserably. But the question is - what?

At that very moment a tall man in a flowing white robe strode into the courtyard. His eyes were the colour of the Irish sea in winter and in his right hand he carried a long wooden staff. He hammered on the ground with the staff and everybody turned to look at him.

Who are you and what do you want? demanded the High King.

My name is Patrick and I have come to rid this land of snakes, answered the stranger in a voice that rang like a bell.

As soon as they heard these words the people began to cheer and dance with relief. Even the High King could not resist a smile.

Then you are indeed welcome, he said. But tell me how are you going to accomplish this tricky feat?

I shall use my staff and the power of prayer, replied Patrick.

The Kings face fell. Prayers are no good, he said. Weve prayed to all our gods to rid us of this curse but, if anything, there are now even more snakes than before. He shook his head sadly.

I am not talking about your gods, said Patrick. I believe in the one true God and it is his power that I shall use.

The High king looked very doubtful but said, Very well then, Patrick. If your God can help you drive out the snakes then I and all my people will worship your God and your God alone.

Once he had the High Kings promise that the land of Ireland would become Christian if he succeeded, Patrick left the palace and marched up to the top of a cliff. The wild waters of the ocean foamed and seethed far below. Patrick raised his wooden staff above his head and brought in crashing down on the ground. His voice roared out on the wind as he commanded the snakes to be gone.

The people could hardly believe their eyes as in a creeping, slithering mass the snakes came out of their hiding places and crawled to the edge of the cliff. For a second the carpet of reptiles paused then they reared up and flung themselves off the cliff into the raging waters of the Irish sea.

There were wild celebrations as the High King and his people rejoiced that the snakes reign of terror was over but then Patrick ordered them all to be silent.

What is it? asked the crowd. Whats the matter?

That is the matter, replied Patrick gravely and he pointed with his staff at a large, evil looking serpent that was slowly making its way towards them.

When the creature came within earshot it reared up and cursed Patrick.

You have sent my followers to the bottom of the sea, it hissed. But I shall destroy you.

Why destroy me when I have the power to give you something that you have always wanted? asked Patrick.

What is that? said the curious reptile.

A beautiful house of wood, replied Patrick.

The huge serpent looked sceptical.

You are the King of the snakes are you not? asked Patrick. So surely you deserve a fine place to live now that you have no subjects left? Just think how warm and comfortable it will be in winter.

The snake considered what the Saint had said and then agreed that he would like a comfortable home. So Patrick sent for carpenters and they quickly constructed a beautifully carved wooden box. When it was finished, Patrick opened the lid and invited the reptile to slither inside and inspect its new house. The snake refused.

That box is far too small, it said. Ill never squeeze my coils into it.

Dont be ridiculous, snapped Patrick. Theres room enough for ten snakes in there.

Oh no there isnt, said the snake sibilantly.

Oh yes there is, shouted Patrick.

And I say there isnt, retorted the serpent.

So why dont you prove it? snarled the irate saint.

All right I will, replied the angry creature and promptly wriggled inside the box. The last part of its long body poked out.

You see, I told you I wouldnt fit, cried the creature in triumph.

But you do, yelled Saint Patrick as he leapt forward, shoved the tip of the snakes tail into the box and slammed the lid shut. No sooner had he done this than he picked up the wooden coffin and hurled it over the cliff into the sea. It was quickly swept out of sight over the horizon by the wind, the waves and the tide.

The High King and his subjects were all so grateful to Patrick that they all agreed to let him baptise them on the spot. And, as for the snakes, well they havent been seen in Ireland from that day to this.

Roger Hurn 2012

Teachers Notes and Key Questions

The life story of St. Patrick is a mixture of history and legend. He was born in Wales but was kidnapped by sea raiders and sold in Ireland as a slave. He mastered the Irish language before making his escape to Gaul. The religious life appealed to him and he was ordained as a deacon, then priest and finally as a bishop. Pope Celestine then sent him back to Ireland to preach the gospel. Patrick was a great traveller, especially in Celtic countries, and many places in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Ireland are named after him.

Patrick is world famous for having driven the snakes from Ireland. While it is true there are no snakes in Ireland today, this is because snakes have not been found in Ireland since it was separated from continental Europe at the end of the ice age. However, the serpent was a powerful symbol in pagan religions and an object of worship. Driving the snakes from Ireland was almost certainly symbolic of Patrick bringing an end to that pagan practice.

Although not the first Christian missionary to visit Ireland, Patrick had the greatest impact. He gained the upper hand when he clashed with the Druids at Tara, the Court of the High King of Ireland. By the force of his arguments and preaching he persuaded the King to break with the Druids and to prevent them from practising their beliefs. Patrick then converted the warrior chiefs and princes. He baptized them, and thousands of their subjects, in the Holy Wells which still survive to this day as place names.

According to tradition St. Patrick died on 17 March 461 AD and was buried in the same grave as St. Bridget and St. Columba, at Downpatrick, County Down. The jawbone of St. Patrick was preserved in a silver shrine and believed to have healing powers. However, another legend says St. Patrick ended his days at Glastonbury in England and was buried there. The desperate desire displayed by churches in the Middle Ages to possess the bodies, or at least the relics of saints, accounts for the many differing traditions as to the burial place of St. Patrick.

Key Questions

How likely is it that Patrick really did drive out the snakes from Ireland?

Why do you think the legend has grown?

Why do you think Patrick became the patron saint of Ireland?

Why do people make up stories about people like Patrick?

If the story about Patrick and the snakes isnt true do you think it is wrong for people to keep on telling it?

A Celtic Prayer (Optional)

Please close your eyes and listen quietly while I read this Irish prayer.

May God bless all the land from sea to shining sea

The fertile mountains, the gladed woods

The abundant rivers and the fish-abounding lakes. Amen

Bible Links

Mark 5 8:13 (The Gadarene Swine)

Mark 16 17:18 (Casting out demons)

Mark 17 19:21 (Faith can move mountains)

Roger Hurn 2012

Books by Roger Hurn

Something Wicked This Way Comes - This is a fantasy tale of a 14th century tragedy invading the present-day. The pace is fast, the danger lurking in woods and fairgrounds hugely credible and terrifying. With humour and scares taking turns on the page, this book will keep children (8-14) thrilled and engaged.

The Eye of the Pharaoh - This thrilling story will captivate readers of all ages - as well as serving as the perfect introduction to the history of ancient Egypt.

Once There Were Lions - It is 1939 and a gang of children who call themselves The Lions play happily in the back streets of London. They are totally unaware that their little world is about to be shattered beyond repair. War is declared and they, like thousands of others, are torn from their families and sent off to live with strangers in the countryside. This is their story.

Spooky Stories & Twisted Tales A collection of short stories to haunt the imagination.

Spook Squad Adventures Too Scary For Boys (Ransom Publishing Chosen by The Book Trust for their Bookbuzz list 2012/13

The Alien Detective Agency Series 1 & 2 (Reluctant readers; Badger Publishing


Interest age 8 12 years | Reading age 9 10 years

Exciting action-packed stories