Winter storm after St. Paddy's Day? In Newfoundland, that means Sheila's coming through

Terri Coles
Blair Agnew shovels Wednesday, Feb. 15 in St. John’s, Nfld. Schools and businesses were closed as blizzard conditions continue over the Avalon Peninsula. Photo from the Canadian Press.
Blair Agnew shovels Wednesday, Feb. 15 in St. John’s, Nfld. Schools and businesses were closed as blizzard conditions continue over the Avalon Peninsula. Photo from the Canadian Press.

Many Canadians spend early March looking forward to St. Patrick’s Day, but in Newfoundland and Labrador people watch for another famous Irish figure: Sheila.

In parts of the province, particularly in and around St. John’s, “Sheila’s Brush” is known as a winter storm that occurs just after St. Patrick’s Day – and seen by some as a sign that spring’s arrival is imminent.

“The most common idea about Sheila’s Brush is that it’s a snowstorm, or some amount of storm, that falls on March 18, because by folklore that’s said to be Sheila’s day,” Philip Hiscock, a professor in the folklore department at Memorial University in St. John’s, tells Yahoo Canada News. But the lore of Sheila’s Brush has changed over the century or so since it was first recorded.

The earliest connections of the idea of Sheila’s Brush to weather, from about 100 years ago, were tied not to snow but to wind, Hiscock says.

“It had nothing to do with snow at all, it had to do with the wind,” Hiscock says. “For seamen it was said that there was a big windstorm that came up around the time of the spring equinox.” That storm would be called a liner or line storm, defined by the Dictionary of Newfoundland English as “a high wind or gale at the time of the equinox.” In Chafe’s Sealing Book by Levi George Chafe, published in 1923, it’s mentioned that sealers often wouldn’t begin their season until “Sheilah’s brush” had come and gone.

“Those liner storms in March were often then associated with the older tradition of a day of celebration following St. Patrick’s Day, which by joke–and later tradition–became Sheila’s day,” Hiscock says.

Who was Sheila?

The story of Sheila originally developed separately from that of liner storms. March 18 was Sheelah’s Day in the old Irish calendar, but just who Sheelah was is less clear. Journals and newspapers from the 18th and 19th century indicate that there was a widespread believe that St. Patrick had a wife named Sheelah, a Irish folklorist told the Irish Times last week.

But there are other thoughts about who Sheila might have been, Hiscock says, and how March 18 became “her” day. For some the idea of Sheila has been tied to Irish nationalism or patriotism, and Sheila has been used as a symbol of Ireland itself. And in old British military records there are references to Irish soldiers being absent on March 18 because they were “celebrating Sheila”–that is, hungover.

“This was a bit of a joke but it gradually built up,” Hiscock says. “When people needed a reason to extend the party of St. Patrick’s Day, then Sheila was sitting there.”

In modern-day St. John’s and area, Sheila’s Brush is seen less as an excuse to continue the St. Paddy’s party and more as a sign that the harsh winter weather may be on its way out. But there still isn’t a clear consensus on what exactly Sheila’s Brush is or when it happens.

One of the variations of the story of Sheila is that she was a woman St. Patrick came across while walking through Ireland as she was sweeping the road, with a bucket of water beside her, Hiscock says. Patrick asked Sheila for a drink of water from her bucket; in response she threw it in his face, and it turned into a snowstorm.

And for some people Sheila’s Brush is a snowstorm that happens in the St. John’s area some time around or after St. Patrick’s Day. The Telegram in St. John’s referred to a winter storm that came through over Monday and Tuesday as Sheila’s Brush, for example.

Others still tie the storm to wind specifically – by that token, some referred to the significant winds in the St. John’s area earlier in March, during the Brier, as Sheila’s early arrival.

And for some, Hiscock says, Sheila’s Brush is the last storm of the winter whenever it happens to occur.

However it is defined, the lore remains a popular one in and around Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital city, where Irish influences remain strong and St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday for the provincial government.

“It links very clearly to people’s sense of Irishness and folklore,” Hiscock says. “People have a sense of Sheila that it is folklore, and that gives it a little cachet right there. And Newfoundlanders are quite proud of their folklore, whether they’re of Irish ancestry or not.”