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Well holy God! It looks like St Patrick was married and we used to celebrate his wife every year

The mention of Sheelah in the written word stretches back hundreds of years

Image: Sam Boal

AN IRISH FOLKLORE expert has claimed that St Patrick was married and that the legacy of his wife has been lost in history.

Shane Lehane, Department of Folklore UCC, has said that in the old Irish calendar the day after St Patrick’s Day is Sheelah’s Day but what is less known is that Sheelah was his wife.

According to Lehane, the 17 March celebrations were extended for an additional 24 hours to commemorate her life. There is evidence for the celebration of this day in newspaper accounts from the 18th and 19th century where there was the widespread belief that St Patrick had a wife.

Lehane explained if you go back to pre-famine times,  the newspapers in Ireland talk not just about Patrick’s Day but also Sheelah’s Day.

He explained: “So I wondered where this came from?  You have Paddy’s day on the 17th and it continues on to Sheelah’s day.  I came across numerous references that Sheelah was thought to be Patrick’s wife.  She was his other half.  The folk tradition has no problem with such detail. The fact that we have Patrick and Sheelah together should be no surprise. Because that duality, that union of the male and female together, is one of the strongest images that we have in our mythology.”

An early reference to the celebrations on 18 March was discovered in John Carr’s 1806 book The Stranger in Ireland.

Carr said that on the anniversary of St Patrick, the country people assembled in their nearest towns and villages and got very tipsy.

It read: “From a spirit of gallantry, these merry devotees continue drunk the greater part of the next day, viz., the 18th of March, all in honour of Sheelagh, St. Patrick’s wife.”

Lehane claims the fact that Patrick had a wife is a really fascinating angle from a feminist point of view.

“What I think is very interesting is that people in Ireland in the past had no problem whatsoever accepting that Patrick had a wife. The church was very strong and during the period of Lent from Ash Wednesday right through to Easter Sunday you had major prohibitions.

Tradition

“However, folk tradition was such that Patrick afforded a special dispensation and Irish people were allowed to celebrate Patrick’s day which always fell in the middle of Lent. It seems to have been extended to the 18th of March and was a continuation of celebrations. They continued to drink on Sheelah’s day and there is a sense that the women were more involved in the celebrations on the 18th. So there is a feminist angle in there.”

He said while the feast day is largely forgotten about in Ireland, Sheelah still has a presence in the history of Newfoundland, Canada. This is due to a large exodus of Irish people to Canada in the 17th century.  Lehane says perhaps the most enduring legacy of Sheelah is the so-called “Sheelah’s Brush” as the name given by Newfoundlanders and Atlantic Canadians to a winter snowstorm that falls after St Patrick’s Day. The phrase is still used by fishermen and meteorologists in that part of the world.

90412550_90412550 Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Lehane suggests that perhaps the key to understanding the inherited notion that St Patrick had a wife, Sheelah, is to explore the hugely interesting archaeological manifestation that also bears her name: the Sheelah-na-Gig.

Lehane proposes that it is time to revisit and embrace the story of Sheelah. He believes the figure of Sheelah was much bigger than suggested by the few mentions she receives in old newspaper accounts. According to the folklore expert, she would have been massively important.

“She represents a folk personification, allied to, what can be termed, the female cosmic agency, and being such, would have played a major role in people’s everyday lives. It is a pity that the day has died out. But maybe we will revive it. I am sure Fáilte Ireland would be delighted with it. I think it would be a great idea.”

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