LIKE all good men, St Patrick couldn’t have banished the snakes from Ireland without the help of a great woman – his wife, Sheelah.
A folklorist has now claimed there are widespread indications in historic records that St Patrick was married.
In fact, so widespread was the ancient belief that Ireland’s Welsh-born national saint was married that his name day was extended for 24 hours to honour his ‘other half’ – with March 18 referred to as “Sheelah’s Day.”
University College Cork (UCC) folklorist, Shane Lehane, said there was a widespread belief in the 18th and 19th Centuries that St Patrick, like many clerics of the ancient period, was married.
St Patrick preached in Ireland in the 5th Century – an era where the majority of clerics across Europe were married.
He is credited with starting the conversion of Ireland from paganism to Christianity and, over the centuries, earned the title ‘The Apostle
“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. So I wondered where this came from,” Mr Lehane said.
“You have Paddy’s day on March 17 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.”
John Carr’s 1806 book, ‘The Stranger in Ireland’, refers to Sheelah as St Patrick’s wife.
“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,” he wrote.
The UCC folklorist argued that Sheelah has raised intriguing issues from a feminist point of view – particularly how she was airbrushed from modern depictions of St Patrick.
“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.”
“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 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.”
Sheelah has also been referenced in The Freeman’s Journal in 1785, 1811 and 1841.
Mr Lehane has also raised potential connections between Sheelah and the pre-Christian importance of 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 themvery much as examples of old women showing young women how to give birth. They are vernacular folk deities associated with pregnancy and birth,” he said.
The UCC academic said it was time for Ireland to re-embrace the story of Sheelah and her importance to St Patrick’s story.
“Sheelah represented, for women in particular, a go-to person because she represented the female,” he said.
“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.
I am sure Fáilte Ireland would be delighted with it. I think it would be a great idea”.