A break from the past - Sheelagh’s Day and other new holiday ideas

An Irishman’s Diary

Sheela na Gig carving on White Island, Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh. Photograph: Getty

Sheela na Gig carving on White Island, Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh. Photograph: Getty

 

I’m not sure if David Loughlin (Letters, September 30th) is aware of this, but his excellent idea of making next March 18th a national holiday – thereby extending St Patrick’s Day into the weekend while also marking the second anniversary of the Covid crisis – has interesting historical precedent.

March 18th used to be known, and maybe still is in places, as Sheela[g]h’s Day, after a woman variously claimed to be St Patrick’s wife, his sister, or a pre-Christian mother-goddess type who had nothing to do with St Patrick at all. She may instead be connected with that other early Irish celebrity whose likeness adorns some of Ireland’s oldest monuments, Sheela na Gig.

But whoever she was, as Shane Lehane of the University College Cork department of folklore wrote in these pages a while back, she was once a popular excuse for March 18th celebrations among the Irish on both sides of the Atlantic.

He cited a Freeman’s Journal court report from March 1841, in which a female charged with drunkenness claimed, by way of mitigation, that she had consumed “two small naggin of whiskey […] not wishing to break through the old custom of taking a drop on Sheelah’s Day”.

As for the diaspora, there is an even older attestation from The Newfoundlander in 1829. Reporting celebrations of the national day by the Benevolent Irish Society in St John’s, it recorded: “The company continued to retire, successively, until six o’clock on Sheelagh’s morning (March 18), at which hour, we understand, a few of the campaigners [were still] piously and patriotically employed in drowning the shamrock.”

So here we have a holiday rooted in history, which would also chime with the modern imperative of gender equality. Meanwhile, the crowning genius of making March 18th a holiday, next year at least, is that it would also help bring Ireland belatedly into line with a custom from mainland Europe, where the concept of the four-day weekend – official or otherwise – has long been an institution.

In many continental countries, where a holiday falls on Tuesday or Thursday, locals take the intervening Monday or Friday off too. The practice is dignified by various names, typically on the theme of bridge construction. In France, the expression is “faire le pont”. In Italy, it’s “fare il ponte”.  The Germans, typically, make it sound like an actual engineering project, but their “bruckentag” (bridge day) means the same thing.

Variations include the Austrian “fenstertag” (window day), while in Norway, interestingly, they speak of the “oval helg” (oval weekend). The implication is that a normal weekend is circular, whereas in this one, the curves are stretched at both ends. That concept might be popular with Irish rugby fans, who would benefit from an oval weekend next St Patrick’s Day, what with the last round of the Six Nations falling on March 19th.

Of the other dates being floated for a new holiday, I like the idea of St Brigid’s Day (February 1st), or the suggestion about everybody getting their birthdays off, although in my case that’s the same day anyway. As if by way of encouraging this idea, next February 1st is a Tuesday. So if that were to be a national holiday, we might as well take the Monday too (and tell the boss we had to go to the doctor’s with a bruckentag).

A weakness of our existing holidays, from a bridge-building point of view, is that they tend to fall on fixed dates, as St Patrick’s does, not fixed weekdays. For the latter, we would usually be dependent on religion – Shrove Tuesday, Ascension Thursday, etc – which may not suit prevailing sentiment. Conversely, the sole merit of another recent suggestion, adopting the Americans’ Thanksgiving Day here, is that it always falls on a Thursday in late November, albeit a bit too close to Christmas.

But if we have to borrow a bridge-friendly holiday from another country where a lot of our emigrants live, we could do worse than finding an excuse to celebrate the first Tuesday in November, as Australians do, when the Melbourne Cup takes place and the State of Victoria (at least) gets the day off.

Maybe we could call it Dermot Weld Day, after horseracing’s Christopher Columbus, who 28 years ago became the first European to take a horse down under and win the famous prize. But perhaps that would be too niche for popular acceptance.

On the other hand, we could maybe combine a celebration of sport with the American idea of harvest thanksgiving. To this end, I suggest the new November holiday might be called after the horse that made history in 1993: Vintage Crop.

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