Saturday, 11 March 2017

Cleland's Snakes

In 1831, in an effort to test the long held belief that Irish soil is deadly to snakes, James Cleland purchased some snakes and released them into the garden of his County Down home [1]. Cleland chose not to tell his neighbours about his experiment, so panic ensued when snakes were found near the final resting place of St. Patrick.
At least, that’s the story.
We know Cleland had snakes. On 7 December 1831, he donated two “English Snakes” to the Belfast Natural History Society. However, I cannot find an 1831 paper that reported on the finding of snakes in County Down - or the hysteria. These reports came much later.
The following is from the Northern Whig of 22 November 1922.
Why are there no snakes in Ireland? I do not recollect having ever seen any explanation, either by the Editor of our own Nature Notes or anybody else, and, with all due deference to St. Patrick, I cannot think he was the reason. Some people, of course, believe that snakes cannot live on Irish soil, and as far back as 1831 Mr. James Cleland, of Rathgael, determined to try the experiment. He bought half a dozen of the common English snake in Covent Garden, and turned them out in his garden at Rathgael, which, as everybody ought to know, is on the direct Bangor-Newtownards road. A week afterwards one of them was killed at Milecross, about three miles distant. The person into whose hands this strange monster fell had not the slightest suspicion it was a snake, but, considering it a curious kind of eel, they took it to Dr. J. L. Drummond, our own celebrated Irish naturalist, who at once pronounced the animal to be a reptile and not a fish.
The idea of a “rale living sarpint” having been killed within a short distance of the very burial-place of St. Patrick caused an extraordinary sensation of alarm among the country people. The most absurd rumours were freely circulated, and credited. One far-seeing clergyman preached a sermon, in which he cited this unfortunate snake as a token of the immediate commencement of the millennium; while another saw in it a type of the approach of the cholera morbus. Old prophecies were raked up, and all parties and sects, for once, united in believing that the snake foreshadowed “the beginning of the end,” though they very widely differed as to what the end was to be.
Some more practically-minded persons, however, subscribed a considerable sum of money, which they offered in rewards for the destruction of any other snakes that might be found in the district. And three more of the snakes were not long afterwards killed, within a few miles of the garden where they were liberated. The remaining two snakes were never clearly accounted for; but no doubt they also fell victims to the reward. No one who did not live in that part of the country at the time can imagine the wild rumours, among the more illiterate classes, on the appearance of those snakes; and the bitter feelings of angry indignation expressed by educated persons against the – very fortunately then unknown – person who had dared bring them to Ireland.
As always, I’m happy to hear from anyone who can add to this story.
1. Cleland wasn’t the first to try this. Giraldus Cambrensis, writing at the end of the 12th century, recorded that these experiments had been going on for centuries. 
 - Belfast News-Letter, 9 December 1831
 - Northern Whig, 22 November 1922

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