Interestingly, the water that filled the channel the Oilliphéist carved comes from a spring called Shannon Pot, created when Sionna, a granddaughter of a sea deity, ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge there. As she took a bite the waters of the pool welled up, pulled her in, and proceeded to flow away, obviously taking advantage of the convenient channel left by the Oilliphéist. And this implies that the Oilliphéist must have been living in the vicinity of the Tree of Knowledge when it heard the bad news of Saint Patrick.
I can’t help speculating that the dragon must have eaten some of that fruit of knowledge, maybe what had fallen onto the ground, if nothing else, and therefore it was presumably pretty wise. And if it was indeed so wise, then I think there’s a good chance that when it heard Saint Pat was coming for it, and all its little brothers and sisters, it wouldn’t just flee blindly headlong into the ocean. After all, if it had, it would surely have reached the sea at the nearest point, at Sligo not 25 miles away. No, instead, the River Shannon flows 224 miles right down through the whole middle of Ireland to Limerick, and this can mean only one thing. I believe that the Oilliphéist had a plan. It must have deliberately raced through as much of the country as it could, gathering up all the snakes of Ireland as it went. Only then did it slither into the sea, taking all the snakes safely with it. I like to think that the Oilliphéist and Ireland’s snakes are happily living even now somewhere on one of the mysterious western isles with which Celtic mythology is so well stocked.
There is one footnote to the story. Apparently on its way the Oilliphéist accidentally swallowed a drunken piper named O’Rourke. O’Rourke was either too drunk even to notice he’d been swallowed, or was too laid-back to mind, and he kept right on playing in the Oilliphéist’s stomach. You can imagine that a drunken piper would be quite a belly-ache, so the Oilliphéist, once again demonstrating its wisdom, spat O’Rourke back out before leaving Ireland for paradise.
[Picture: Snake and river, woodcut from Sancti Epiphanii ad Physiologum, 1577 (Image from University of Victoria).]