St. Patrick’s snakes

St. Patrick’s day brings back fond memories of my first visit to Ireland as a graduate student.  A handful of students were chosen to work at Navan Fort, an ancient archaeological site located in County Armagh, Northern Ireland.  Four students and one professor would travel across the globe with a magnetometer, archaeological tools and a hunger for adventure. 

During our flight we had small talk and a distinct question from our professor.  “What are the most dangerous snakes in Ireland?” We all thought about the question and took guesses.  Rattle Snake, Coral, Cotton Mouth, King snake.  Our professor grinned like the Cheshire Cat, “There are no snakes in Ireland.  Have you ever heard of St. Patrick.” 

Upon arrival we picked up our bags and Mercedes-Benz rental and drove to a quaint B&B which became our adopted home and family for the next few weeks complete with about five house kittens.  No jeeps or excavation tents for us, we were traveling in style. 

Mornings began with coffee or tea, Weetabix cereal or toast, and juice.  It was Buffet style but a warm motherly face always greeted us with a sparkling smile.  “Off to work, eh.”  She knew our professor’s research at Navan Fort, and by the way we were dressed it was obvious we were not tourists.  Jeans or sweatpants, fleece shirts with rain coats covering us and plastic rain boots.  We had to be prepared for fog, mist, downpours and mud given our working conditions and even in June Ireland could be cold.

Days were spent pinpointing excavation units based on our Magnetometer readings.  Once digging began we found the charred remains of wooden post holes used in prehistoric buildings dating to about 100 BC.  Enough reason to celebrate for this group of U.S. and Ireland based archaeologists.  In Ireland this meant pubs, random live music and plenty of Guinness beer.  Some of my best memories of Ireland involved just hanging out in a smokey pub as locals randomly broke out in song, reciting beautiful Irish ballads to the wee hours of the morning.

On weekends we took side trips to Belfast, the North Coast, the Giant’s Causeway, Dublin, Aran Islands, the Burren, the Cliffs of Moher, Donegal and my favorite Leslie Castle.  All the above mentioned were far more beautiful than Leslie Castle, but the castle was quite the cultural experience. We were invited have a private dinner and meet the eccentric owner of the castle.  Just the five of us had an elite meal complete with a servant for each,  making sure our wine glasses were full at all times.  As soon as I took a sip from my glass it was refilled.  The same was true for my co-workers and their own servant lingering over them.  We couldn’t help but giggle.  I don’t remember what we ate but I’m sure it was good.  Afterwards, we glided into the family room where Leslie himself was smoking a cigar.  He showed us around his castle finally settling into a living room full of  historic artifacts, such as Winston Churchill’s Baptismal gown.  He had a story for each one of them and he was a great storyteller.  The wine continued to flow as we listened to Leslie play the piano.  It was a divine evening.

The following day on our way to Navan Fort our youngest grad student muttered, “pull over, now please.”

He ran to the bushes and vomited for a good five minutes then climbed back into the Mercedes next to me.

“Looking for butterflies,” I said.

He grunted and remained silent for the rest of the ride to our excavation site. 

Since it was the summer solstice we were treated to a special ritual performed by the Armagh Rymers.  With their straw masks and costumes they carried on the ancient tradition of masked “mumming” mentioned in the Celtic “Táin Bó Cuailgne”.  It was quite the scene with a white horse,and the Rymers performing folk music at such an ancient site.  Truly a magical performance made comical when the lead Rymer pulled out his cell phone at the end of the ritual.  Tradition meets technology.

So why are their no snakes in Ireland?  Legend has it that St. Patrick banished all the snakes from the island and chased them into the sea after a forty-day fast.  But as archaeology and paleontology suggest at no time have snakes ever existed in Ireland.  The island is surrounded by freezing water and therefore too cold for snake migrations from Britain.  

The snake represents evil in mythology so when Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland more than likely it symbolically said he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland bringing in a new age, the age of Christianity.

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