by Dymphna Lonergan
While many Irish female names are saints’ names, there is no Saint Sheila. According to Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, the name Sheila derives from Cecily, ‘the English form of the Latin name of the…virgin martyr St Cecilia…The Anglo-Normans brought the name to Ireland and in time it became in the Irish language Síle‘.
Ó Muirithe also discusses the anglicisation of the name in the nineteenth century with the forms Sheela, Sheelagh and Shelagh as being popular in England and the form Sheila in Australia as a ‘slang word for a girl’. Currently the Oxford English Dictionary expresses uncertainty regarding the precise origin of the chiefly Australian word ‘sheila’: ‘it may represent a generic use of the (originally Irish) personal name Sheila the counterpart of Paddy’.
The Dinkum Dictionary expresses greater certainty: ‘Sheila’ was a common female name in Ireland, used alongside the name “Paddy” to represent the archetypal Irish couple’. The entry continues: ‘From this early usage (dating from the 1820s in Britain) “Sheila” came to represent any female whether Irish or not. This British use of ‘Sheila’ was then transported to the colonies. Possibly because I was born and raised there, I was never convinced that that the name Sheila was as popular as the name Paddy in Ireland and so was unlikely to have been the source for Australian English ‘sheila’.
I have looked at the 1901 census of Ireland available online. These are twentieth-century results, of course, and can only be suggestive of what the situation might have been in the 1800s: census of Ireland 1901 returns: Patrick 197,031; Sheila 34, Sheelah 50, Shela 25, Sheelagh 14, Sheela 11.
If at the turn of the nineteenth century Paddy and Sheila were popular names in Ireland and the counterparts of each other, it seems odd that the name Sheila should have plummeted in popularity to the extent that the 1901 census of Ireland returns show. We also have some records from the middle of the nineteenth century that can further substantiate the oddity. Irish birth civic records began in 1864.
A search for the names Sheila and Patrick between 1864 and 1900 returns 1,897 records for Sheila and 247,290 for Patrick. What is clear in this data is that the name Patrick does not have a numerical matching female name in the form of Sheila or anything close to it, and that the name Sheila in Ireland from the middle of the nineteenth century was rare. Thus the name Sheila does not seem to be the origin of the Australian generic word for a girl; however, we might find some clues in the Irish language.
The Irish language name Síle is the Irish equivalent of the name Julia, as Sinéad is Jane and Siobhán is Joan. This word ‘Síle’ is also used generically in the Irish language although still represented as a proper name, with a capital S.
The Irish word Síle appears as a proper name in Foclόir Gaeilge-Béarla but is given the meaning ‘effeminate person, sissy’. It is used as a word for a homosexual in an Irish language dictionary of sexual terminology. On the other hand, T.P. Dolan says that Irish Síle, as well as being an ‘effeminate man’, is also regarded as ‘a typical woman’s name’ and offers an Irish proverb Fan go fóill go bpósfaidh Síle, ‘wait your turn’, but which is literally ‘wait until Síle marries’.
This seems to imply that the name Síle was popular enough in Ireland to be used generically.
There are many names used generically in Irish, both female and male:
Cόnan or Conan: ‘a big, easy going person’;
Diarmaid or Dermot: ‘a small man’, ‘an ordinary man’;
Dόnall or Daniel: ‘a happy-go-lucky person’, ‘a foolish fellow’;
Éamann or Edward/Ned: Éamann bradach ‘a rapparee’ (literally Ned the thief); Éamann an chnoic: ‘a rapparee’ (literally Ned of the Hills);
Ruairí or Rory: Ruairí an mheán oíche, ‘a fly-by-night’ (literally Rory of midnight);
Seán or John ‘Seán Buí’: ‘John Bull’ (literally yellow John), a term for England; Seoinín or Shoneen: ‘a flunkey, toady’ (literally little John);
Máire or Mary, Máire fhada: ‘heron’ (literally long Mary);
Máirín or Maureen in the phrase, Máirín an chlúimh: ‘hairy caterpillar’ (literally Maureen the fluffy creature);
Muireann or Muireann in the phrase, Muireann i mbríste: ‘a tomboy’ (literally Muireann in trousers); and
Nóra in the phrase, Nóra na bportach: ‘a heron’ (literally, Nora of the bog);
and Siobhán alla: ‘spider’, (literally Joan spider).
There are many variations of Síle : Síle na bpíce:‘an earwig’ (literally Síle of the (pitch) forks); Síle na bportach:‘a heron’ (literally, Síle of the bog); and Síle chaoch a dhéanamh de dhuine: (literally to make a blind Síle of someone/to make a fool of someone).
We can see here that first names in the Irish language can be used for a living creature or a trait, but this use is not connected with popularity: the names Micheál and Pádraig are popular but do not appear in this list, and the popular name Seán is represented only in terms of disparagement for England, little (cowardly) John and yellow (filthy) John Bull.
A New Research Finding
The dictionaries to date give the earliest recordings of the word sheila in the 1820s. It is likely that the word was around for many years before that in Australia. I can add to that timeline my recent discovery of the name in a Jonathan Swift poem, ‘To Quilca a country house in no very good repair’ (1725). The pertinent lines are
In vain we make poor Sheelah toil,
Fire will not roast nor Water boil.
This puts the name back in in Ireland. ‘Quilca’ was Thomas Sheridan’s house in County Cavan. He was a friend of Swift’s ,and it is said that Swift wrote some of Gulliver’s Travels in that house.
Sheelah, as mentioned in this poem, I suggest, is used generically as a word for a housekeeper, in the same way that the name Biddy might be applied generically to an Irish female servant in the US. A study of nineteenth century Australian and US ships’ passenger lists will show the name Bridget as appearing frequently, and so the nickname Biddy for a servant would make sense. However, as mentioned earlier, females with the name Sheila were not part of passenger lists to Australia to any extent. Perhaps the generic name of sheila in Australian English for a girl comes from an occupation rather than the first name.
We are getting closer to the Australian English word sheila, a generic name for a female, with Swift’s reference to a generic name for a servant woman. Was it once a popular name in Irish-speaking Ireland and then remained only in the older generation and applied to single females who may have had to eek out a living by providing domestic service? Were the first sheilas in Australia poor women who provided domestic service or indeed other kinds of service? There are hints of the latter in early Australian newspapers.
Swift’s reference occurs in 1725. The first recorded Australian reference to ‘sheila’ is 1829. What happened to all the other sheelahs in Ireland? Did they go with the Irish language and the Famine? Did they then surface only in Australia as a result of hardship? Who named them here? Was it other Irish in Australia in the first instance? Australian lexicographer Bruce Moore has written on the topic, as have I. With this discovery of ‘sheila’ in Ireland in 1725, it seems that the mystery remains to be solved.
Much of the above forms part of an article I have written on ‘Sheila’s Day: myth or memory’. The full article can be read in the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies 2019 available at https://isaanz.org/irish-studies-association-of-australia-and-new-zealand/ajis/past-issues/volume-19/#go-top or as an individual article through https://search.informit.org/doi/epdf/10.3316/informit.917977666357406
Dymphna Lonergan is a member of the Tinteán collective. Her PhD research into the history of the Irish language in Australia culminated in the 2004 book Sounds Irish. She has been researching the origins of Australian ‘sheila’ ever since. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org