Sheela Na Gigs
We have spent a lot of time tramping around looking for Sheela na Gigs on every visit to Ireland (variously pronounce Sheela na GIG or Sheela na Ghee by those Irish experts I have met- Irish is Síla na Gigh).
The meaning of the words also varies according to what you read. Sheela: feminine, connected with Sidhe (Shee- the fairy folk of Ireland). Gigh: variously breasts, buttocks- The Sheela na Gig Ireland website is very clear that the pronunciation is Ghee and that the word is still in use and refers to the Vulva.
In any case, it is always a great pleasure to find a Sheela that we haven’t seen before. We found 4 last week. We have a battered map by Jack Roberts (the Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland: An Illustrated Map and Guide) that we have used since 2009. Jack Roberts put it all into a book in 2018 which is updated (“new” Sheelas are regularly found) and we used that as well as the website.
And who or what might they be? Jack Roberts says:
“Sheela-na-Gigs are carvings of naked females posing in a manner that is usually described as “exhibiting” themselves and are often found on churches and other religious structures. Even more surprising is the fact that they are not hidden or put somewhere they could be missed but are usually placed in the most prominent and visible positions where everyone could see them such as above the main doorway or over a prominent window”
No-one knows what they actually mean- there is a lot of supposition but every Sheela is unique (although the exposed vulva is a distinct commonality) and she is variously connected with fertility, the Cailleach or Hag, or simply put there to place the fear of God in men related to women and sexuality.
Sheela-na-Gigs were created over 5 centuries– between the 12th and 17th century, so some refer to her as a medieval Goddess/symbol.
Last week we visited one in County Sligo and 3 in County Mayo
Firstly, there is Herself in County Sligo (originally from Behy Castle (in ruins) and now stored in a farm building):
I wanted to see this Sheela but it is on private land and we are super sensitive about entering these places.
Geoff insisted on visiting the farmhouse 5 times no less- no one was home and I was for giving up, but he persisted. The 5th time led us to relatives of the owner who said the wife of the owner could be “contrary”, so we were a little concerned when we knocked on her door.
She was a delight! She hates the Sheela and never goes down there because when she met her husband she was told that he was one of 10 children and this had been attributed to the Sheela. She said one child was enough for her! She said that she often gets visitors from all over the world and often they are seeking a blessing from the Sheela for their own fertility. Geoff wasn’t keen to have a child at this stage of our lives but I re-assured him that it would be a miracle indeed if that was to happen!!
She is stored in a barn building which is piled high with varied farm equipment and detritus. Such an Irish thing to have such treasures merged with the live-a-day world. She is painted red and apparently no one knows when or why that was done- or what the paint consists of. She is in fantastic condition as she has been protected from the elements for so long.
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