Newfoundland and Sheila's Brush

The only bigger St. Patrick's Day tradition in Newfoundland than wearing green may be talking about Shelia's Brush.  It combines two of our favourite things -- folklore and talking about the weather. 

Sheila's Brush (or Broom) is the name given to a powerful storm that is supposedly occurs close to March 17th (St. Patrick's Day) every year.  Unlike St. Patrick's Day, which is kept by the Irish (and their friends) all over the world, Sheila's Brush is really a Newfoundland-only event.  If it was marked in Ireland, it isn't anymore, at least by that name.  But many places on the planet do hold on to the idea of stormy weather, or equinoctial gales, happening in the later parts March.

Lambs, Lions & Equinoctial Gales

Equinoctial gale refers to powerful (or frequent) storms believed to occur near the equinoxes.  The belief, that storms can be predicted by the equinox, is held far and wide but is not particularly well-supported.  
Here are two data analysis, one from Tasmania  and another from the UK, that take the wind out of the sails of the equinoctial gale.

Scientific support aside, with St. Patrick's Day so close to the spring equinox, Sheila's Brush folklore could just be a Newfoundland variant on the equinoctial gale -- after all, a storm near St. Patrick's Day is a storm near the equinox. Expanding that a little further, could 
the whole 'March coming in like a lamb, out like a lion' folklore be a play on the theme, as well?

The book British America contains a reference to March 18th as Sheelagh's Day.  The author, John McGregor, writes:
 "St. Patrick's day, and Sheelagh's (the saint's wife), the day following, are occasions on which the mass of the Newfoundland Irish revel in the full glory of feasting and drinking."  
He makes no reference to any weather lore but does go on to say that in Newfoundland "a belief in apparitions prevails, and they delight in relating ghost stories, or whatever is marvellous."  He wasn't talking about St. Patrick's Day in particular but, if a belief in the marvellous persisted the other 364 days of the year, it probably extended to believing weird and unusual things happened around March 17th too.

Sheila, Sheelah, who the Heck is Sheelagh?

According to the mythology, Sheila is a woman close to St. Patrick, beyond that it's debatable.  She has variously been called his wife, sister or housekeeper.  The spelling of her name varies as well.

Gander, April 2017
So when did Sheelagh's Day become associated with a winter storm?  Well, it happened quite some time ago.  There are references in the early 1900s of seal hunting fleets waiting until after Sheila's Brush before setting sail.  How exactly, Sheila became associated with a storm is not clear but, regardless, she promises bad weather. 
And, while bad weather may be in the cards, the timing of Sheila's Brush has its own set of folklore that offers a bit of a silver-lining.  

It's said that if Sheila's Brush occurs after St. Partick's Day, a mild spring is on it's way. I grew-up hearing that the storm was Sheila sweeping away the last of winter. As an adult, and reluctant snow-shoveller, reflecting on this story has gotten me through some cold, depressing March mornings. 

On the other hand, if the storm comes before St. Patrick's Day, Newfoundland is in for a bad weather spring. The pre-St. Patrick's day version of the storm gets called Patrick and Sheila.  It's nice that Sheila doesn't have to bear the blame for a miserable season all on her own.


A Sheila's Brush Mixtape


If we HAVE to go through a winter storm in mid-March, we might as well enjoy it.  I can think of few things that make the day better than an amazing soundtrack.  Check out this playlist of music from Newfoundland artists that's bound to make any day better. 

Youtube - Apple Music -  Spotify

One final thought,  Sheila's Brush is an almost 'can't fail' piece of folklore.  Basically, if a winter storm occurs in the middle of March we've seen Sheila's Brush/Patrick and Sheila.  When does Newfoundland ever go a month in the winter without some weather event to discuss?  Almost never.  

Sheila's Brush is bound to happen.

Comments