Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 19, 2015
On St. Patrick’s Day, Idiomation shared the history and meaning of the word begorrah. It seems only fitting that Idiomation should also share the history and meaning of the idiom Sheila’s brush as there’s a connection between Paddy and Sheila, and it’s one that’s been known for many generations … especially among Atlantic Maritimers in Canada.
For those who know the idiom, Sheila’s brush refers to a fierce storm with heavy snowfall that happens in and about St. Patrick’s Day. And this year, Sheila’s brush was particularly severe in the Maritimes up in Canada. According to the Weather Network, weather forecasters were warning Newfoundlanders to prepare for 30 centimeters of snow before the day was over. As luck would have it, they got more than 40 centimeters of snow and wind gusts were up to 100 kilometers an hour in places such as Gander (Newfoundland).
Sheila’s brush effectively shut down Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, and everything within their borders.
While that may sound like a lot of snow, it’s nothing compared to Sheila’s brush in 2008 when two powerful storms hit the coast back-to-back, leaving places like Gander to deal with 120 centimeters of snow over the week of dueling snowstorms.
In the 1986 book, “Talamh an Eisc: Canadian and Irish Essays” edited by Cyril J. Byrne and Margaret Rose Harry and published by Nimbus Publications, Ireland no longer holds to the idiom. However, those of Irish ancestry in Canada’s Maritime provinces know Sheila’s brush very well.
The people of Conche, like other Newfoundland-Irish people, have also retained and adapted certain folkloric items which are no longer found in the homeland. As Herbert Halpert has demonstrated, the familiar Newfoundland weather belief of “Sheila’s brush,” a snow storm which occurs close to St. Patrick’s day, appears not to be known in Ireland.
It was in “Chafe’s Sealing Book” by Levi George Chafe (1861 – 1942) and published in 1923 that Sheila’s brush is mentioned.
They employed for that purpose schooners measuring forty to seventy five tons, strongly built, poles are suspended on their sides as some protection to their timbers against the ice. The crews of the largest craft were from thirteen to eighteen men, who on finding their own guns are admitted berth free, the rest generally pay 40/ – for their berths. About St. Patrick’s Day they start, most of them waiting until after Sheilah’s brush or the equinoxial gale has passed. It is impossible to conceive a degree of perseverance and intrepidity greater than the people of Conception Bay in particular displayed in struggling by all means possible to get out of their harbour and bay till they reach Baccalieu.
On March 26, 1829 the popular St. John’s, Newfoundland newspaper The Newfoundlander reported on the celebrations of March 17 by the Benevolent Irish Society. The article stated in part:
The company continued to retire, successively, until six o’clock on Sheelah‘s morning, at which hour, we understand, a few of the campaigners might have been seen, as usual, piously and patriotically employed in ‘drowning the shamrock.’
Yes, the day after St. Patrick’s Day was known as Sheila’s Day (with various spelling of the name). It was mentioned in Volume 1 of John McGregor’s book, “British America” published on 2 January 1832 by T. Cadell of Strand, London, England.
St. Patrick’s day, and Sheelagh‘s day (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. They are certainly at those periods beyond any control; and they completely forget themselves, fighting and drinking, until they are overcome by the one, or laid up by the other. These excesses have become less frequent.
Even Anglican missionary, Newfoundland magistrate, and historian Lewis Amadeus Anspach (22 April 1770 – 1823) wrote of it in the first general history of Newfoundland titled, “History of the Island of Newfoundland” published in 1819, stating the following:
It is hardly in the power of any priest in the world to hinder an Irishman from getting gloriously drunk, if he is so inclined, on the whole of the 17th of March, as well as the next day in honour of Sheelagh.
While Idiomation was unable to find Sheila’s brush in publications of the day, the term was used colloquially among the Irish of Newfoundland in the 1800s, and Sheelagh (with many spellings of the name) was oftentimes mentioned in conjunction with St. Patrick’s name when speaking of the festivities in March. Anecdotally, many Newfoundlanders speak of letters written by their forefathers to friends and family, discussing Sheelagh’s brush or Sheelagh’s broom (as it was sometimes also known).
That being said, it’s understood by seafaring men of the Maritimes that Sheila’s brush referred to the equinoxial gale that happened in March — winter’s final hurrah for the year. Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to at least 1800 in Newfoundland among its inhabitants.