Saints, Serpentology, and Scottish Independence


James Connolly, a link between Irish and Scottish self-determination.

It is not long until the centenary of the Easter Rising, the start of a ferocious and bloody conflict which put Ireland on the road to independence. Yet for all the long night of war, pain, and death, within a few years, the sun would rise on an independent Irish people. I have Protestant & Catholic Irish ancestry in my living family, which makes Irish history complicated no matter the occasion. This day, of all days – this year, of all years – I will be reflecting most somberly on the Irish men & women on both sides of the ensuing conflicts, and indeed, on St. Patrick.

St. Patrick’s Day is often reduced to an excuse to get drunk in a caricature of the long, strong traditions of Ireland. Yet the story of St. Patrick – like many a saint – is full of the sort of blood & thunder that would get any Sword-and-Sorcery yarnspinner typing furiously. Indeed, the man’s own legend is full of conflicting tall tales – though some common strands weave through the tales. We can deduce that he was a Romano-Briton born and raised in early Medieval Britain, once called the Dark Ages. At 16, he was kidnapped by Irish reavers and enslaved for six years. Toiling in imprisonment, he took resolve in his burgeoning spirituality. He escaped, travelled two hundred miles to the nearest port, voyaged for three days across the sea, and then embarked upon a spiritual journey… through a “wilderness.”

By his early twenties, he had returned home, and studied the Christian religion. He was thought to have visited Tours and the French Riviera on his studies, and became a missionary. Soon, he returned to the land of his kidnappers, with a Mission in mind. The exact temper of his mission varies from scholar to scholar – Tírechán and Muirchu portray Patrick as a fiery evangelist, engaging in thunderous debates with druids, breaking and toppling pagan icons and sacred stones, and cursing lands & leaders alike. Yet Patrick’s significant work with the poor, the lower classes, and women, suggest a more nuanced approach – perhaps even in conjunction with the spectacular exultations. The legends of Patrick are just as varied: the time he proselyted for so long, the ash walking stick he thrust into the ground to steady him had turned into a tree; his conversations with the spirits of the Fianna; and, of course, the snakes.


I’d love to have seen Robert E. Howard’s take on St. Patrick (illustrated by Frazetta, natch)

Regardless of the actuality* of Patrick’s expulsion of the serpents, the symbolism of the event – driving evil from the land – is potent. Whether it represents pagan cults, the malign hand of the Auld Enemy, or simply the terrible black abyss that is Evil Itself, it was an act to save – and free – the souls of the people of Ireland.

The Scottish independence movement must drive the snakes from our land – but we are not lucky enough to have external, identifiable ophidians to drive out. No, the snakes we Scots must cast out of Scotland are the psychological snakes in our minds. Vipers and cobras poison our blood with self-doubt and reluctance; asps and adders corrode our nerves and resolve; constrictors and pythons strangle our hearts & ambitions. When we free ourselves from those snakes – apathy, resentment, fear, cringe – then we can free our nation.

You know what to do. Grab those snakes by their loathesome tongues, and hurl them to the depths of the sea. It’s what Pádraig would’ve wanted.

*At least, as we understand it…


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