Was St Patrick married? This folklore researcher thinks so

A stained glass window depiction of Ireland's patron saint, St Patrick.Thad Zajdowicz/ Flickr

New research suggests that Ireland's beloved patron saint St Patrick actually had a wife.

Today is St Patrick's Day, a day when many across the world celebrate the Christian figure and icon of Irish culture. Shane Lehane, a folklorist of University College Cork, Ireland has now suggested a 'feminist angle' on the tradition with the possibility that Patrick had a wife.

In the old Irish calendar the day following today is known as 'Sheelah's Day'. Lehane said that Sheelah was Patrick's 'other half', who was celebrated on March 18 as an extension of Patrick's celebrations. The pair 'came to represent the ubiquitous Irish couple'.

He said: '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.'

One historical mention of Sheelah comes from John Carr's 1806 The Stranger in Ireland: '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.'

Lehane adds that the possibility of the saint having a wife – and that wife being given her own day – was radical for its time, though easily accepted in Irish culture.

'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 18 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.'

Lehane suggested that is time to restore the place of Sheelah, who 'represented the female', in Irish society.

'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 [Ireland's tourist board] would be delighted with it. I think it would be a great idea.'

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