Saint Patrick, the patron saint and beloved icon of Ireland, is accredited in legend with driving all the snakes from the Emerald Isle. Hard-nosed scientists, who don’t appreciate a good myth, have proved that Ireland doesn’t have snakes because the island was once covered in glacial ice. No snakes have managed to swim to the isolated isle since it got a bit warmer, they say, so we don’t need the intervention of a holy man to explain the absence of the legless reptiles. Scholars of theology, however, love to point out that the druids, the Celtic priests of pre-Christian Ireland, are the “snakes” of the story, and when Saint Patrick established Christianity in Ireland, the druids lost their power over the Irish population, hence they were “driven out.”
Well, I think it’s time for some middle ground. Myth and science don’t have to be mutually exclusive, so here’s a new way to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day this year. Using the Linux-based freeware planetarium program Stellarium, I will show the sky in the hours prior to the dawn of Saint Patrick’s Day, and you too can watch the snakes be banished from Ireland by the good Saint.
The Sky Over Dublin, Ireland
At midnight on Saint Patrick’s Day, the snake constellation, Serpens, is poking his slithery head above the eastern horizon over Dublin, Ireland.
By 2 AM, Dublin time, Serpens is dominating the eastern sky. (Hercules is having a struggle with the many-snake-headed Hydra too, just to add to the drama).
By 6 AM, local Dublin time, it looks like the snake of the druids is losing influence at last; only the last coil of his receding tail is visible to the southeast of the sky (just to the right of Aquila from this perspective).
It’s now 7 AM local Dublin time, and the sun is at last rising. Serpens has been banished – only the tip of his tail is still visible. What do we now see, rising with the sun on the eastern horizon? It’s the nose of the fish constellation Pisces, symbol of Christianity!
At 8 AM local Dublin time, Serpens is gone, and Ichthys is shining bright.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!