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St Patrick had a wife, and her name was Sheelah

Accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries suggest Ireland’s patron saint was married

St Patrick and his followers, played by actors, lead the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

St Patrick has long been associated with snakes and shamrocks, but that he had a wife has largely been confined to the annals of history, according to a folklorist from University College Cork.

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 Patrick’s wife. Shane Lehane, of UCC’s department of folklore, says Sheelah was Patrick’s “other half” and that the March 17th celebrations were extended for an additional 24 hours to commemorate her life.

Lehane observes that antiquarian journals and newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries indicate a widespread belief that St Patrick had a wife. “Pre-Famine, pre-1845, if you go back to the newspapers in Ireland they talk not just about Patrick’s Day but also Sheelah’s Day. You have Paddy’s Day on March 17th, and it continues on to Sheelah’s Day. I came across numerous references that Sheelah was thought to be Patrick’s wife. 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 continued celebrations on March 18th, which was St Sheelah’s Day, is found in John Carr’s 1806 bookThe 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. “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 says that Patrick had a wife is fascinating from a feminist point of view. “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 you had major prohibitions. However, folk tradition was such that Patrick afforded a special dispensation, and Irish people were allowed to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. It seems to have been extended to March 18th 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.”

Paddy and Sheelah became a byword for all Irish people. Sheelah has been forgotten altogether except in Newfoundland and Australia

Lehane has unearthed references to Sheelah’s Day in the Freeman’s Journal in 1785, 1811 and 1841. There are also many accounts in the 19th-century Australian press of the observance of Sheelah’s Day, usually in the context of the consumption of too much alcohol.

He says while the feast day is largely forgotten about in Ireland, Sheelah still has a keen presence in the history of Newfoundland, in Canada. “St Sheelah’s Day was news to me. I thought it was amazing, as all memory of her seems to have died out here. Sheelah and Patrick, at one time, came to represent the ubiquitous Irish couple: Paddy and Sheelah became a byword for all Irish people. Sheelah has been forgotten altogether except in Newfoundland, Canada and in Australia. Irish people headed over to Newfoundland from the late 1600s. And they brought over with them this tradition of Sheelah and Sheelah’s Day.”

Lehane says perhaps the most enduring legacy of Sheelah is the “Sheelah’s brush”. This is the name Newfoundlanders and Atlantic Canadians give to a winter snowstorm that falls after St Patrick’s Day.

Sometimes referred to as Sheelah’s Broom  – or, if the snowstorm is mild, with only a bare covering of snow, Sheila’s blush – it is still referred to respectfully by meteorologists and fisherman in that part of the world.

Lehane suggests that perhaps the key to understanding the inherited notion that St Patrick had a wife is to explore the archaeological manifestation that also bears her name: the Sheela-na-gig.

“Sheela-na-gig is a basic medieval carving of a woman exposing her genitalia. These images are often considered to be quite grotesque. They are quite shocking when you see them first. Now we look at them very much as examples of old women showing young women how to give birth. They are vernacular folk deities associated with pregnancy and birth.”

Lehane proposes that it is time to revisit and embrace the story of Sheelah. “Sheelah represented, for women in particular, a go-to person because she represented the female. The Sheela-na-gig is a really important part of medieval folk tradition. The figure of Sheelah was perhaps much bigger than suggested by the scant mentions we find in the old newspaper accounts. 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.”