Happy Sheelagh’s Day – well, maybe
St Patrick has long been associated with snakes and shamrocks, but that he had a wife has largely been confined to the annals of history, according to a folklorist from University College Cork.
The Irish Times reports that in the old Irish calendar the day after St Patrick’s Day is Sheelah’s Day, but what is less known is that Sheelah was Patrick’s wife. Shane Lehane, of UCC’s department of folklore, says Sheelah was Patrick’s “other half” and that the March 17th celebrations were extended for an additional 24 hours to commemorate her life.
Lehane observes that antiquarian journals and newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries indicate a widespread belief that St Patrick had a wife. “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. You have Paddy’s Day on March 17th, and it continues on to 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 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.”
An early reference to the continued celebrations on March 18th, which was St Sheelah’s Day, is found in John Carr’s 1806 book The Stranger in Ireland. Carr said that on the anniversary of St Patrick the country people assembled in their nearest towns and villages and got very tipsy. “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.”