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."
|A Sheela-na-Gig, female deity with exposed/exaggerated genitalia, carved into a standing stone at Hill of Tara.|
Some time ago, I wrote about the story of the "twining branches" (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.
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.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.
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." (Source)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.
|A statue of Saint Patrick looks out across Gabhra Valley from Hill of Tara.|
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 possible 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 espoused celibacy for its all-male clergy, Patrick himself had a wife.
It could only happen in Ireland.