Snakes alive! Slippery serpent found at Northern Ireland church

A four-and-a-half foot tropical snake which eluded a wildlife rescue team in Londonderry for almost 18 months has been located on the grounds of a church and safely captured.

Patrick the snake after he was removed from the grounds of St Columb's Church in the Waterside.
Patrick the snake after he was removed from the grounds of St Columb's Church in the Waterside.

Clergy and housekeeping staff at St Columb’s Church in the Chapel Road area of the Waterside were stunned after local parishioners spotted the black and red ringed reptile in the grounds of the Waterside church last Thursday.

After police were contacted, officers immediately got in touch with Londonderry woman Niamh McManus, founder of Foyle Wildlife Rescue, and together with volunteer Gemma Havlin from Greencastle she swept into action.

For Niamh it was a case of de já vu, as police had twice before in 2019 contacted her following sightings of the same snake, dubbed ‘Patrick’, in the walled area behind Spencer Road, but the slithery customer had always managed to evade detection - until now.

Patrick the Snake is currently being cared for by Foyle Wildlife.

Niamh said: “When we got the call from police to say there’s a snake in the church grounds I looked and Gemma and said ‘no way’.

“I asked if the snake was red and black stripes and they said it was so I knew then. I just started laughing, thinking, ‘this can’t be real’.

“Police tasked me to it in February 2019 and in August 2019 but I could never catch it. For two or three days I pursued it in August and before that I’d been on it’s tail. It has been living inside these walls for at least a year and half. I’m amazed it survived the winter but it managed to keep itself alive.

“It really shows the effects of global warming - if we are having snakes over wintering in Derry then the climate is changing and temperatures are rising. With different species there have been changes, and even migration patterns are being affected.”

By sheer coincidence Niamh had met with a woman who put in the original call about the snake and she was reminding her about it. Lo and behold, two days later Patrick rocks up again in the same area.

Niamh and Gemma jumped in the car and made their way to the church, where, said Father Michael Canny from the Waterside parish, those gathered had gently poked the snake to make sure it was real, and were stunned when it slithered off down a gap between the tarmac and the kerb.

After checking out the scene and confirming with the priest and the others that a picture Niamh had of Patrick from last year matched, Niamh and Gemma went back to get equipment before returning.

Gemma Havlin said: “It was unbelievable it survived. Obviously it somehow kept its core temperature. We were trying to figure out how we would catch it. We had a wee rabbit that had passed away and we thought we could set a trap and we went back to the church. Niamh started digging down with her hands and then we were both digging. Niamh managed to reach in and bring it out with her hands. The priest was so, so happy.

“One thing we didn’t bring with us was a pillow case and Niamh had the snake and was calling for one so the priest went in and got a pillow case from the parochial house.

“It was brilliant how well everything worked and we had a hot water bottle for him to keep him warm.

“The snake even got a little blessing and was wished well before we left! He is Patrick forever more Amen after that.”

Niamh added: “It took us ten minutes, and whenever I got the snake out the church bells started tolling. We were in absolute stitches.”

On returning to the rescue sanctuary, Niamh prepared a nice bath and a hot pad for Patrick and they went straight to Pets and Home to get him some proper food.

And all are in agreement that the milk snake’s appearance on Irish soil may have had something to do with events this year and a certain patron saint, who legend has it, banished snakes from this land for eternity. As Fr Canny put it: “Maybe the snakes were back because St Patrick’s Day services and events were cancelled this year, who knows!”

Niamh’s charity Foyle Wildlife Rescue has been meticulously caring for numerous injured or orphaned young animals and has recently been caring for young fox cubs, a pregnant badger and a vast array of other animals including many different young birds. Some of the recent residents have included Conan the Barbarian, a particularly noisy bird, and Pricky Gervais the hedgehog, as well as Brock the Badger, and fox cubs Cinder and Amber. Many have been successfully and very carefully reintroduced to the wild whenever they were ready.

And while Patrick’s days on the mean streets of Derry have come to an end, a suitable forever sanctuary for him will now be sourced for whenever he is ready.

To donate or find out more go to Foyle Wildlife Rescue see www.facebook.com/foylewildliferescue/