While the whole population of Ireland and people of Irish descent around the world celebrate Saint Patrick's Day this coming Saturday, not many people will know that the day after, March 18th, is dedicated to Patrick's wife, Sheelah. Yes, Saint Patrick was married, according to tradition!
The revelation that Saint Patrick had a wife whose name was Sheelah is tremendously exciting for a number of reasons. Shane Lehane, a folklorist from University College Cork (UCC) has discovered pre-Famine references to a widespread belief that Saint Patrick had a wife and that St. Sheelah's Day was celebrated the day after St. Patrick's Day, on March 18th.
Lehane is quoted in the Irish Times as saying "Pre-Famine, if you go back to the newspapers in Ireland they talk not just about Patrick's Day but also 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 should be no surprise. Because that duality, that union of male and female together, is one of the strongest images that we have in our mythology."
Although the devastating effects of the Great Famine on Irish culture might never be fully quantified, we have a significant example here of a folk belief that seems to have died out in Ireland with the famine. References to Sheelah's Day were found in the Freeman's Journal of 1785,1811 and 1841, but the feast day has been "largely forgotten about in Ireland" according to Lehane.
Some time ago, I wrote about the story of the "twining branches" (from the tale of Deirdre and the Children of Uisneach) and how memories of this creation myth were brought by Irish emigrants to Nova Scotia. The story of Sheelah seems to follow a similar fate. Before the Famine, which happened in the late 1840s, the celebration of St. Patrick's Day continued into March 18th for his wife's special day, St. Sheelah's Day (and of course in typical Irish fashion copious amounts of alcohol were consumed.)
However, after the Famine the tradition seems to have died out here, but Irish migrants who ended up in such places as Newfoundland, Canada and Australia brought the tradition with them.
Lehane says perhaps the most enduring legacy of Sheelah is the so-called “Sheelah’s Brush.” This is the name given by Newfoundlanders and Atlantic Canadians 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.
Undoubtedly some media commentators will pick up on the obvious relevance of Patrick's wife to the whole discourse about Catholic celibacy - and the perceived connection between that peculiar diktat of the traditional church here and the many sex and paedophile scandals that have decimated the Catholic faith here in Ireland.
A somewhat obscure and tenuous but perhaps very important connection is made by Lehane between Saint Sheelah and the "hugely interesting archaeological manifestation that also bears her name" – the Sheelah-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."
And Lehane believes that the tradition of Sheelah could and should be revived and embraced in Ireland.
"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. She is an important folk deity. The figure of Sheelah was perhaps much bigger than suggested by the scant mentions we find in the old newspaper accounts. 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."
A revival and reactivation of Sheelah
My own view is that the revival of the tradition of a female deity equal in status to Patrick might very well be important to the spiritual well-being of a country which has been very heavily influenced by patriarchal religious zeal for centuries, an influence that is seen by some as a contributory factor in many of Ireland's ills. The symbolic importance of Patrick (who was, ironically, a Romano-British immigrant to these shores) cannot be understated in the milieu of a nation defined for so long by its trenchant support for the male-dominated Roman church.
Now we have the chance to reconcile the tradition of an almost-forgotten woman into the complex folk fabric of a fractured cultural history – a history that, it must be borne in mind, was vibrantly aware of the necessity for accessibility to the feminine deity in most of its past eras. The patriarchal influence of Rome did not decimate the ancient divine feminine – rather it forced upon us some sort of collective obeisance to the supremacy of the omniscient and jealous male god of the old testament, forcing the old indigenous female deities such as the Cailleach and Sheelah into the shadows.
There was "suspicion and even hostility to the feminine which many leading Christian thinkers and writers expressed in the early medieval period", according to Gearóid Ó Crualaoich in The Book of the Cailleach.
The female wasn't altogether banished, but rather was revealed in a guise that was somewhat familiar, with reflections of the ancient goddesses of old but very much dressed in the raiment of a woman whose power was contingent upon the emanations of the Catholic patriarchy. Thus, Brigid the prehistoric goddess survived as the saint who became known to us as Muire na nGael, the Mary of the Irish, and indeed the Catholic Church had allowed Mary to become a co-redemptrix with Jesus. The presence of this ancient goddess, albeit in diluted form, in the church of Rome was probably one of the factors that had helped the church to become established in the first place.
Further to the potential revival of the tradition of Sheelah here is the possibility that incorporating her into our national celebrations could become a hugely significant act. We have here the very vivid and exciting possibility of activating or reactivating a feminine energy that is, as CG Jung might have suggested, of supreme importance for the ultimate rehabilitation of the modern human soul through the reconciliation of the masculine and feminine elements in life.
Can one yet countenance the notion of a Saint Patrick's Day AND a Saint Sheelah's Day? A national holiday for Ireland, spanning two days, recognising the male and the female, and allowing both to hold equal court in the hearts and minds of Irish people and their descendants and friends all around the world?
One of the ironies of the story about the disappearance of Sheelah from popular folk memory is that she hasn't vanished at all. The Sheelah tradition simply moved abroad with the forced migrations resulting from mass starvation. Many of those who stayed behind perished. Sheelah's story might have perished with the Famine also (even if Patrick's story only became more ubiquitous) except for the fact that her flame was kept burning abroad, in distant lands, by those who left these shores. The supreme irony is that Patrick – who was married – brought the tradition of Jesus to these shores, from a distant land, and that even though that tradition eventually transmogrified so that it espoused celibacy for its all-male clergy, Patrick himself had a wife.
It could only happen in Ireland.