Thursday, 16 March 2017

Saint Patrick was married - his wife's name was Sheelah and St. Sheelah's Day was celebrated on March 18th

The revelation in today's Irish Times 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."

A Sheela-na-Gig, female deity with exposed/exaggerated genitalia, carved into a standing stone at Hill of Tara.
Although the devastating effects of the Great Famine on Irish culture can never be truly 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" (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." (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.
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.

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.

9 comments:

  1. Please read about the Council of Autun. It took place in France something between 663 and 675, called in by Leodegar. There some rules were discussed and passed as further canonical laws. Rule number 15: Monks have to live in poverty, celibacy and obedience. They tried to diminish the influence of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh Christians who lived a celtic influenced belief.
    Patrick lived 200 years before this council took place and at that time it was common that monks and nuns were married and some even lived together in the same cloister. I recommend here the novels of Peter Tremayne about Sister Fidelma.
    So it isn't very astonishing, that Patrick was married.
    Later the Bishop of Rome wanted to become the head of all bishops and to create the real Catholic Church. And the Council of Autun was the first step. It took until the late 10th century to have established celibacy all over the spread of the Catholic Church. It was a pretty brutal and bloody chapter of criminal history of the Catholic Church. In the end wives and children of priests were sold into slavery and the aristocracy helped the church.

    My information about the Sheela na Gigs is, that they are much older than medivial times. And they show, that mankind and everything in the universe and the universe itself, was born by the female deity. Everything and everyone came into being through her and at the end reverts to her. ( Mother Earth and the Great Godess)


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    1. Its not "astonishing" to some, but most people are stuck with the Party-line Church view of these things. Thanks though, for this comment. :)

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  3. In addition to my upper comment:

    For me it's very interesting to come to know, that Sheela is said to be the wife of St. Patrick. It was also a common custom of the Catholic Church to accumulate things they weren't able to get rid of. And whilst accumulation they started changing it to fit the proper belief of the church.
    Or, sometimes people added the missing "feature" to the new belief to make it bearable.

    This article is very interesting! Thank You for Your thoughts and information.

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  4. The church assimilated things, not accumulated! And whilst assimilation they changed it. Sorry for this fault!

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  5. Very hopeful article! I'm all for saint sheela's day!!! Maggie Moon

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  6. Thank you for this. I've long wondered why the female divine was suppressed in the Catholic Church, the feckers are afraid of her. She'd give away all their wealth. The Church so lost its way! Building an empire that became unwieldy and impossible to disentangle itself from. The only way for the Church to regain respect in Ireland is if it walks away from all its schools, its lands, its fine properties and hands them back to the people. Plus fair monetary compensation for those it abused. The poet John Montague said 'We must follow Christ through Christianity' They are the wisest words I ever heard.

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  7. Thank you for this. I've long wondered why the female divine was suppressed in the Catholic Church, the feckers are afraid of her. She'd give away all their wealth. The Church so lost its way! Building an empire that became unwieldy and impossible to disentangle itself from. The only way for the Church to regain respect in Ireland is if it walks away from all its schools, its lands, its fine properties and hands them back to the people. Plus fair monetary compensation for those it abused. The poet John Montague said 'We must follow Christ through Christianity' They are the wisest words I ever heard.

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  8. Next year's St PAT's will be a double party !! one for Padraig himself and one for a Sile ! it is about time we brought her back !! Equal things out a bit , she is badly needed !!

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