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  • Writer's pictureJonathan King

St. Patrick and the Caorthannac

You may know the story of St. Patrick, how he was kidnapped by pirates, sold into slavery in Ireland, and escaped only to return and bring the Gospel to Ireland, saving an entire nation.

But did you know he also fought monsters?

It was the 5th century A.D., several years after St. Patrick returned to Ireland's shores. He had spoken with kings, denounced druids, and taught the people as only he could. But the people of Ireland still suffered terribly, beset by serpents and snakes and demons that defied description. But the worst was the mother of them all: Caorthannac (pronounced QUEER-hawn-nock) the fire-spitter, who gave birth to so many monsters she was thought to be the mother of the Devil himself. She taught her children the ways of misery and destruction, and so they plagued not just Ireland but all of humanity.

In the end, Patrick had enough. He prayed for wisdom on how to save his people from these terrible creatures, and God gave him a vision of the Caorthannac in her cave deep beneath Lough Derg, a lake that contained a portal to Hell. God also showed him how to defeat the monster.

The next day, Patrick took his crozier, his staff of office, and climbed to the top of a mountain that would one day be named for him and his deeds there that day. There he called up a strong wind that blew through the whole island, from the highest hills to the deepest caves. It picked up every one of the Caorthannac's serpent offspring and blew them out to sea, banishing them forever from the Emerald Isle. And that is what the Irish mean when they say St. Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland.

But Caorthannac was stronger than her children. She fought the wind until it ceased to blow, and descended upon the mountain in the form of a green dragon who breathed poison flame. They fought for two days and two nights, with neither able to gain the upper hand. Finally, Caorthannac, exhausted and fearing defeat, turned and fled, hoping to return to her cave. But Patrick leaped onto his horse, the fastest in all Ireland, and gave chase.

It was a long and desperate ride for Patrick. He was exhausted, and his thirst was so great he feared he would die. The Caorthannac knew this and spit her poisoned fire into every well and spring she passed, so that if Patrick drank from any of them, it would be death to him. But Patrick saw through her ruse and prayed for the strength to go on. When he had ridden so long that he could stand his thirst no longer, he prayed for water to drink. The moment he finished his prayer, his horse stumbled and threw him to the ground. Where he struck the ground, fresh, clean water sprang up for Patrick to drink. And so, as he did for the Israelites of old, God provided water in Patrick's time of need.

Strengthened by the drink, Patrick managed to cut off the Caorthannac before she could reach her lair. From here, the legends disagree on what happened next. There are some who say that Patrick fought the Caorthannac in the depths of Lough Derg, until she swallowed him whole. Then he used his crozier to cut his way out of her belly, killing her once and for all. Others say he banished her with a single word, throwing her into the sea with such great force that the lands around were flooded by the waves. But I like to think that the Caorthannac managed to wriggle away from Patrick and may still be hiding, biding her time and hatching her devilish plans for the world...

Whatever the case may be, it was because of St. Patrick that the people of Ireland were freed from the Caorthannac's tyranny, which is just one of the many reasons they still love him today. And it's just one more reason to celebrate St. Patrick's Day today!


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