Shelah’s Day and the origin of sheila

by Bruce Moore

Lexicographer Bruce Moore is editor of the forthcoming (2016) second edition of the Australian National Dictionary, a historical dictionary that tells the story of Australian English. It contains the  Australian National Dictionary Centre’s latest research into Australian words, and this blog illustrates the kind of research undertaken for the dictionary, in a new investigation of the history of a well-known word.

Sheila in the sense ‘a woman, a girl’ became established in Australian English towards the end of the nineteenth century. By the end of the twentieth century it had become a fairly problematic term, mainly as a result of being burdened with many negative and derogatory male attitudes towards women. The pejorative connotations are present in such compounds as sheila talk for ‘trivial gossip’, or in such uses as football coaches berating their teams for ‘playing like a bunch of sheilas’.

12th c. sheela-na-gig. Source: British Museum

12th c. sheela-na-gig. Source: British Museum

But where did this Australian word sheila come from?  There has been some general consensus that it is a generic use of an originally Irish personal name Sheila (with some also suggesting an influence from the sheela-na-gig, a medieval carved stone female figure—found on some churches and castles in Ireland and Britain—shown naked with the legs wide apart and the hands emphasising the genitals). In its earliest Australian record, in 1828, sheila (in the form Shela) seems to be used as a generic personal name for an Irish woman, in combination with Paddy (or Pat), the generic personal name for an Irish man: ‘Many a piteous Shela stood wiping the gory locks of her Paddy, until released from that duty by the officious interference of the knight of the baton’ (Sydney Monitor, 22 March 1828).

There have, however, been some reservations expressed about the assumption that Australian sheila is from the Irish personal name. The Australian National Dictionary says ‘probably’, and the Oxford English Dictionary says ‘origin uncertain’. Dymphna Lonergan in her book Sounds Irish (2004) has questioned the origin of sheila in the personal name Sheila. She argues that, contrary to popular opinion, Sheila was not an especially common Irish name in Australia in the first half of the nineteenth century, and suggests that the Australian sheila comes from an Irish word Sìle meaning ‘effeminate man; homosexual’. But if there was not a superfluity of Irish Sheilas landing on Australia’s shores in the nineteenth century, was there any other Irish influence that might generated the kind of Irish Paddy/Sheila collocation that we see in the 1828 quotation, where ‘many a piteous Shela stood wiping the gory locks of her Paddy’?


The worldwide word Paddy (a pet-form of Patrick, or, in Irish, Pádraig) as a generic term for an Irishman derives from the fact that Patrick is a very common Irish male forename, its ubiquity in turn deriving from the fact that Patrick is the name of the patron saint of Ireland. St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, is widely celebrated, and has been celebrated in Australia since the early nineteenth century.

What is not widely recognised or known is the fact that Shelah’s Day (or Sheelah’s Day) was also celebrated in Australia, on the day after St Patrick’s Day, on 18 March. Shelah (a variant spelling of Sheila) was popularly understood to be the wife of Patrick, or his mother. This folk tradition began in Ireland and has been especially strong in Newfoundland (see Barbara Freitag’s book Sheela-Na-Gigs, 2004, pp. 62-67 for a full history). There is evidence for the celebration of Shelah’s Day in Australia from the 1830s to the first decade of the twentieth century. As with St Patrick’s Day, Shelah’s Day was associated with celebratory drinking.

The first mention of Shelah’s Day in Australia occurs in an 1832 newspaper report of a woman who was charged with a number of minor offences, and who pleaded in her defence that her behaviour could be blamed on the fact that it was Shelah’s Day:

Shelah’s Day.—Martha Grayburn, ‘a would if I could, but I can’t’ sort of a lady, was brought up for the commission of divers peccadilloes on the evening of Sunday. Martha pleaded ‘Shelah’s Day’ in extenuation, and was ordered to ‘go and sin no more’. (Sydney Gazette, 24  March)

In this first mention, the clear indication is that Shelah’s Day is an occasion for the continuation of the festivities of St Patrick’s Day, no doubt including the consumption of alcohol.

St Patrick's Day in the new land 1880. Source: State Library of New South Wales

St Patrick’s Day in the New Land 1880. Source: State Library of New South Wales

More sober activities are sometimes included in subsequent references to Shelah’s Day, including cricket matches and horseracing, and the giving of gifts of bonnets and gloves, but the newspapers typically focus on excessive drinking:

Mary Folkes, quite in the dumps, was charged by the charley, who picked her up, with rolling through the streets on Sheelah’s day, in a state unmentionable. (Sydney Herald, 21 March 1833)

It is somewhat extraordinary that upon St. Patrick and Sheelah’s Day, Good Friday, &c., there were less cases of drunkenness upon the Police Office list than upon any day for a month preceding. It was usually the custom for at least double the number to appear. (Sydney Gazette, 28 March 1837)

The following, or what by the Emeralders is termed Sheelah’s day, our town was far more alive and noisy, and from several shindies we witnessed in our streets, we were inclined to think that some of the Paddys had mistaken the day of commemoration of their saint; but had made no mistake about having their spree out. (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 March 1846)

It is in small towns, villages, or hamlets, in the bush, on the outside of civilisation, where drunkenness reigns on St. Patrick’s day, and worse on Shelah’s day. (Brisbane Telegraph, 16 March 1876)

All residents here appear to have once again become quite fixed in their various avocations; St. Patrick’s Day and Sheelah’s day also having had that attention paid to them which was considered their due. (Hobart Mercury, 26 March 1887)

By the early twentieth century, while the celebration of St Patrick’s Day continues, Shelah’s Day disappears, thereafter being only a matter of nostalgic memory.

St Patrick's Day Parade, Ballarat 1916. Source: Victorian Collections

St Patrick’s Day Parade, Ballarat 1916. Source: Victorian Collections

The close association of the two Irish partying days in the nineteenth century, however, gives us some clue as to how and why the term Shelah (or Sheila) became in Australia a generic term for an Irish woman. As St Patrick’s Day and Shelah’s Day existed side by side, so Paddy (or Pat) and Sheila came to exist side by side. Take this passage from 1835:

Mary Tyler, a regular Irish Shelah, and attendant at this Office [i.e. the Police Office], who never tells a story twice alike, complained of dreadful usage she had received from the landlord of the Brunswick Wine Vaults, who had knocked her down, and kicked her and her children two yards from her. It appeared that the complainant had gone with her husband and another Pat, glorious to the house, and called for a pot of beer, for which the landlord called for the cash, which quite hurt the ladies’ feelings, and all three abused the landlord, and he seeing they were all drunk, he pushed them out of the house. (Hobart Colonial Times, 26 May)

There is no doubt that in this passage Shelah is being used to refer to a stereotypical Irish woman, just as Pat is used to refer to the stereotypical Irish male: a shelah acts in the stereotypical way that a working-class Irish woman would be expected to act.

This stereotype enables us to interpret two other uses of shelah from the same period in a similar way: (1832) Daniel Delaney, from Donoghadee, was charged with making love to a Shelah in the Domain, at the unseasonable hour of eleven p.m.’ (Hill’s Life in New South Wales, 17 August 1832); ‘Two real spitfire shelahs … came … to complain of each other’ (Tasmanian Weekly Dispatch, 1 November 1839).

A later passage, from 1857, provides evidence for a sense of sheila/Shelah roughly equivalent to ‘(Irish) sweetheart’:

The Gold Diggings.—The Munster News has the following paragraph. The brothers to whom it refers will be in the recollection of many residents of Hobart Town, as steady and industrious men; there were three in all, one of whom (now returned to Ireland) … became an hotel keeper. … They went to the Victorian diggings at the commencement, and the elder brother who yearned strongly after the old turf, and his betrothed, returned home in about two years afterwards to cheer the last days of his poor widowed mother, and found his Shelah faithful. (Hobart Courier, 1 June)

This passage shows how shelah could be used in a way that was not pejorative, and prefigures the positive Australian uses of sheila for ‘girlfriend’, ‘young woman’, and the like, for much of the twentieth century, until it makes its transition to problematic status later in the twentieth century.

The evidence shows, therefore, that even if the personal name Sheila was not especially common among the women who came to Australia from Ireland in the nineteenth century, the name Sheila nevertheless became a generic term in Australia for an Irish woman. The most obvious source for this development was Shelah’s Day, especially because of its close association with the Pats and Paddys who celebrated St Patrick’s Day on the day immediately preceding Shelah’s Day. From a generic Australian term for an Irish woman, sheila became a generic term in Australian English for a woman.