Snakes Alive!

Year of the Snake 66 barabara trott

It’s about as far away as we can get from St Patrick’s Day, so it’s probably ok to talk about snakes in Ireland…

Ah yes – the old fable that he banished all the snakes out of the land…

That’s enough of the ‘old fable’ – there’s no doubt about it: there are no snakes in Ireland at all, so it must be true that St Patrick sent them packing! Although I was a bit alarmed when, out walking in the Mayo hills a while ago, I came across this…

Slow-worm (Jonas Bergsten)

A slow-worm? Anguis Fragilis… How does that fit into the St Patrick story?

Well, there shouldn’t be any slow-worms here really – as the Saint expelled all the reptiles and lizards – and that’s a lizard. But evidently someone introduced them into County Clare illegally back in the twentieth century, and they’ve survived there. (Frogs were also introduced, incidentally, as a food source by the Normans).  My sighting in Mayo, however, is something of an anomoly…

But didn’t I hear that these serpenty creatures couldn’t actually live on Irish soil because of Ireland’s purity?

St P window GlastonburyNow you’re talking. It’s perfectly true that if you try to bring a snake into Ireland it drops dead as soon as you enter Irish waters…

Oh? Has that been proven?

Indeed – by Gerald of Wales. He lived in the twelfth century and states that ‘…it is a well-known fact that no poisonous thing can live in Ireland and if Irish soil is taken and scattered elsewhere it will expel poisonous things from that vicinity…’ Other stories mention toads brought to Ireland by accident (having, presumably, stowed away in the holds of ships) ‘…which when thrown still living onto the land, turn their bellies up, burst in the middle and die…’ Perhaps you’ve heard of the Fir Bolg?

I think so – aren’t they one of the early races who inhabited Ireland?

They are – and the name means Men of the Bags. They carried bags of Irish soil around with them when they travelled all over the world, because they would be kept safe by its serpent slaying properties…

I like that idea – remind me to go and do some digging in the garden. Where are you getting all this information from?

Much of it out of a most wonderful book: Ireland’s Animals by Niall Mac Coitor (The Collins Press, Cork 2010), but there are plenty of other early sources, many of which Mac Coitor admirably collects together. Perhaps the best of these is the old medieval Irish text Lebor Gabála Érenn – the Book of Invasions. I have already quoted from that in my story of Cessair, the very first person to set foot on Ireland in 2680 BC…

Yes, I remember that. She was Noah’s grand-daughter. Wasn’t it the case that Ireland was supposed to have been a land without sin, which is why she went there to escape the flood?

That’s her. And it’s a nice bit of symbolism that Ireland was without sin because it had no serpents…

But hang on – that was Old Testament times – long before the saints…

You do have a point there. And, you know, in archaeological terms there are no fossil records of any reptiles having ever been here in Ireland – except for one: the common lizard Lacerta (Zootoca) Vivipara which has always been here, and still is…

Common Lizard (Marek Szczepanek)

Now I’m getting very confused about St Patrick…

Don’t worry about it – it’s a grand story…

Yes, I have this picture of our good saint standing on the top of Croagh Patrick in Mayo and all the crowd of little snakes and reptiles climbing up there to surround him, only to be cast down to their doom by a sweep of his crozier…

Hmmm… but surely they would have just rolled and bounced down to a soft landing at the bottom? It’s only a hill, after all…

Croagh Patrick

You’ve obviously got something else in mind?

Well I like the story of St Patrick’s Chair, which is at Altadaven, Co Tyrone. The Chair is a huge boulder which seems to have been carved into the shape of a chair or throne. Beside it is a holy well – also ascribed to St Patrick – which appears to be a bullaun stone: offerings are made at the well and the trees around it are hung with rags and tokens. Altadaven means Cliff of the Demons, and it was evidently where all the snakes, serpents and reptiles once lived. The saint went there, sat on his chair (presumably) and cast them all down the cliff and into Lough Beag below…

Which is a bit different to just rolling down the hill at Croagh Patrick…

Wishing Chair Slemish

Another St Patrick’s Chair at Slieve Mish, Co Antrim – this one looks like a good candidate for the place where the snakes were cast down… (Irish Times 1956)

And there was a tradition at Altadaven of an annual gathering known as Blaeberry Sunday or ‘The Big Sunday of the Heather’, probably connected with Lúnasa customs. People would climb the rock to sit in the chair and make a wish which, of course, always came true. Then they visited the well and left pins and pennies behind…

Anything else we should know about reptiles in Ireland?

Kemps turtle

Well, earlier this year one of the world’s rarest turtles – the Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle – appeared in Donegal. Unfortunately it was dead – washed up on the beach. But there are also other small turtles which do inhabit Irish waters.

The exception to the rule, possibly. But perhaps being in the water isn’t quite the same as being on the land…

Peist 1611

I’m always keeping my eyes open. I had a ‘serpent’ experience once, in Devon. On my first visit to St John’s holy well up on Hatherleigh Moor I opened the door to the well (which was surrounded by a stone built enclosure) and there inside was an eel swimming around!

I heard that’s a very good omen – to see an eel in a holy well?

Oh yes – why wouldn’t I be a total believer in such things? In Celtic Brittany holy wells are always protected by a ‘Fairy’ who has the form of an eel, and is a benign spirit. Interestingly, though, there is no stream or watercourse near to the Hatherleigh well, so the eel must have travelled some away across the moor to get there – on dry land!

So – I have to ask: are there eels in Ireland?


There are – Anguilla Anguilla – It’s a fish, so not a problem to the saint. Eels have been eaten in Ireland since the earliest human times and have been found in association with Mesolithic sites such as Mount Sandel, Co Derry.

Thank you – you’ve taken us on a serpentine tour through Irish history and mythology…

Mac Coitor














The heading picture Celtic Snake is by Canadian artist Barbara Trott; the Slow-worm is from Jonas Bergsten; the long window is in St Patrick’s Chapel Glastonbury; St Patrick in Bandon Cathedral is by Finola; the Lizard is by Marek Szczepanek; the Peist is from Speed’s Map of Ireland 1611; and Drowning Eels is courtesy of

First Foot

‘…According to local folklore the first foot was planted on Irish soil at Donemark on the shores of Bantry Bay in 2680 BC…’

Ireland's first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

Ireland’s first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

This statement (from Fuchsia Brand’s leaflet on Heritage) was guaranteed to send me scurrying for my history books. And – yes – I found many references to the event: an event which, to my mind, was surely one of special significance for Ireland: the first human ever to have set foot in this land – it must have deserved commemoration… Surely, there must at the very least be a plaque marking the spot? For a moment I wondered if this could be the long sought explanation for the enigmatic piece of Rock Art that’s on display in Bristol’s Museum & Art Gallery – the carving is about the right age…

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol's museum

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol’s museum

So, a similar example of Petrosomatoglyphia is what I was hoping to find on the shores of Bantry Bay, a mere stone’s throw from our home here in Cappaghglass. But – before that expedition – let’s just go back to the history for the moment. Back – in fact – to the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), which was written down in the 11th century and – allegedly – based on earlier source material. It takes a bit of wading through: I used a commentary edited and translated by R A Stewart Macalister and published by the Irish Texts Society in Dublin in 1938, but it’s well worth the effort. There’s a lot I had never understood before about the earliest history of the people of Ireland.

lebot gabala book frontispiece

It’s a long story… The book is a collection, in five protracted parts, of all the poems and traditions which had been written and learned by the Bards, telling the history of their nation. There’s a lot of repetition: like the Gospels there are several versions of each episode and it’s a bit dizzying to try to get a clear overall picture of events. So, settle down and imagine the visiting Bard you have given hospitality to in your tower house on a winter’s night is regaling you with tales of your ancestors.

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall)

Everything has to go back to Noah, who was only allowed to take with him on the Ark his own sons and their wives. One of his sons, Bith, had a daughter – Cesaire (or Cessair). As she had to stay behind so also did her father, but they built their own ships, three of them, and set sail with two other men and a large company of women, looking for a land which ‘knew no sin’ because it had never been populated: there they would settle and aim to re-found the human race in a green and fertile place. Their voyaging took them to many parts of the known world and they came eventually to the north of Spain – which we know today as Celtic Galicia. Cesaire knew that this wasn’t the Utopia they were seeking but she climbed to the top of a very tall tower and, in the far distance, she spotted Ériu – ‘…where no evil or sin had been committed, and which was free from the world’s reptiles and monsters…’

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain...

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain…

And so it was, forty years before the Great Flood engulfed everything, Cesaire’s expedition sailed up to the mouth of the Mealagh River, passing on the way the most beautiful landscapes they had ever seen – landscapes that we are fortunate to see every time we set out to explore our own new horizons.

Bantry Bay - the landscape today

Bantry Bay – the landscape today

Now it was time to glimpse for ourselves this remarkable site – Dún na mBarc – the place of the boat – (Donemark -Dunnamark Townland) in the parish of Kilmocomogue. We drove up the unremarkable N71 through Bantry town and turned in to its attractively situated golf course, then made our way down to the shore. Disappointingly, that is also unremarkable: it’s got a brooding, although not unattractive atmosphere about it. We came there at low tide and saw mud-flats – alive with foraging birds, including a very fine Old Nog – the huge stones of a disintegrating quay, and distant views to the Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas.

Landing Place? At Donemark

Landing Place? At Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark


Alas, there were no footprints, no plaque, no signification of the very important history of this site: there was only our imagination to fill in the gaps. I could envisage Cesaire’s Bronze Age boat (only one survived the full journey) making its way up the azure waters admiring the emerald green of the landscape and passing by some of Ireland’s most dramatic scenery. They landed on ‘…a Saturday, the fifteenth day of the moon at Dun na mBarc…’

Kerry Mountains

Mountains of West Cork

We did find a single commemoration of this event: in the tranquil gardens of the National Learning Network Centre, which is not far from the mouth of the river. It is a work of art, made in 2013 by the students of the Centre, under the guidance of Michael Ray and the auspices of the West Cork Arts Centre – you may remember both from this recent post. Voyage of Stories’  recalls that pioneering arrival in the form of a boat sculpture made of steel, copper and glass and set up over a pool. The glass tiles tell of invasions and emigrations both ancient and modern in Irish and English. It’s a good way to commemorate the journey and those early settlers, we thought.

'Voyage of Stories' at Donemark

‘Voyage of Stories’ at Donemark

Now, Finola – at my side and wearing her Archaeologist’s hat – is tutting at my unquestioning acceptance of the dating of this milestone in Ireland’s history, bearing in mind that the passage graves at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth appear to be some 5,000 years old and – she says – there were people living in Ireland earlier than that! But my view is that there’s history, and there’s story… Well, perhaps history is always someone else’s story but give me a good tale any day, especially one woven with adventure and romance and told at the fireside.

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845)

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845) New Orleans Museum of Art

So now you know all about Cesaire, who was the first to step from that frail vessel which had travelled all the way from Egypt in those far off days. But perhaps I should also tell you a little more: the three men on that voyage faced the prospect of serving no less than fifty women between them if they were to populate this new land. The Lebor Gabála Érenn is quite frank about this: ‘… Ladra, the pilot, from whom is Ard Ladrann named he is the first dead man of Ireland before the flood. He died of excess of women, or it is the shaft of the oar that penetrated his buttock. Whatever way it was, however, that Ladra is the first dead man in Ireland…’ while Bith – Cesaire’s father – was already aged before the voyage and also passed away soon after. That left one man – Fionntán – who was so frightened by the prospect of facing all those women alone that he ran away and hid in a cave. There he changed into a Salmon and survived the Flood which, sadly, overcame Cesaire and her companions. The shape-shifting Fionntán went on to live for five and a half thousand years (by my reckoning that means he’s still alive!) and recorded all of Ireland’s history (including at first hand the account of Cesaire’s voyage) – which he then taught to the Bards of Ireland so that it would be taken out into the world…

But all that is for another day!

made harbour