Did you know St Patrick had a wife?

Our patron saint has long been associated with snakes and shamrocks but the fact that he had a wife has been lost to history.

A UCC folklorist has suggested that St Patrick was married to woman named Sheelah.

Shane Lehane of the Department of Folklore in UCC says that March 17 celebrations were extended by a day to honour Patrick's "other half".

Mr Lehane says that the antiquarian journals and newspapers from the 18th and 19th century were very open to the idea that St Patrick was a married man.

"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," he said.

"So I wondered where this came from?

"You have Paddy's day on the 17th and it continues 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 of that duality, that union of the male and female together, is one of the strongest images that we have in our mythology."

Mr Lehane references John Carr's 1806 text 'The Stranger in Ireland' where Carr writes about celebrations on the anniversary of St Patrick.

    "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."

Mr Lehane also makes the point that Patrick being married has a fascinating angle from a feminist point of view.

"What I think is very interesting is that people in Ireland in the past had no problem whatsoever accepting that Patrick had a wife," he said.

"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 the 18th of March 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."

In his research, Mr Lehane has unearthed references to Sheelah's Day in the 'Freeman's Journal' as well in accounts from Australian Press.

"St Sheelah's Day was news to me," he said.

"I thought it was amazing, as all memory of her seems to have died out here.

"Sheelah and Patrick, at one time, came to represent the ubiquitous Irish couple.

"Paddy and Sheelah became a byword for all Irish people.

"Sheelah has been forgotten altogether except in Newfoundland, Canada and in Australia.

"Irish people headed over to Newfoundland from the late 1600's.

"And they brought over with them this tradition of Sheelah and Sheelah's Day.

"Tim Pat Coogan once remarked that Newfoundland is the most Irish place in the world outside of Ireland."

The most enduring legacy of Sheelah the name given to an Atlantic Canadian storm known as 'Sheelah's Brush' which falls after St Patrick's Day.

Meteorologists and fishermen respectfully refer to the storm by it's name in that part of the world.

Mr Lehane suggests that it is time to revisit and embrace the story of Sheelah.

One way of doing that, he suggests, is exploring the archaeological manifestations that bear her name - 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.

"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.

"I am sure Fáilte Ireland would be delighted with it.

"I think it would be a great idea!"

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