As promised, I have managed to take an hour or two out of my busy schedule to cobble together another article on the shockingly bad research of Irish-Australian academic Dymphna Lonergan. Here is the last instalment of my work on Lonergan, dealing with her theories about the origins of the Australian term Sheila as a somewhat negative or dismissive term for a woman.
The earliest use of this Australian term, according to the Australian National Dictionary, is an article in the Monitor (Sydney) in 1828, describing the St Patrick’s Day disturbances:
Many a piteous Shala stood wiping the gory locks of her Paddy, until released from that duty by the officious interference of the knight of the baton.
The standard derivation for the Australian term among linguists and scholars is that it comes from the Irish Síle either because it was a common name or because it was a generic name for an Irish woman in much the same way as Paddy was used for men. For example, Diarmuid Ó Muirithe discusses the Irish name taking the form Sheila in Australia as a ‘slang word for a girl’. Currently the Oxford English Dictionary is cautious but suggests ‘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’. There are traces in the folklore of parts of the Irish diaspora that Síle was supposed in tradition to be the wife of St Patrick and her feast day was celebrated on the 18th of March.
Lonergan doesn’t buy this version, that Sheila was a common name and that it was used as a generic name for Irish womanhood.
It is surprising that no one, apparently, has questioned these written assertions that the name Sheila is common in Ireland. It is not. Nor has the name Sheila ever been used in the generic sense of a counterpart to Paddy in Ireland. Neither was the name Sheila common in eighteenth century Australia. Between 1788 and 1828 over two thousand female convicts were transported to Australia from Irish ports. … There were no Sheilas on board those convict ships. The Irish language name SÌle is usually translated into English as Julia. There were no Julias on board these convict ships.
In fact, the absence of Sheilas in official records means nothing, because the official Anglophone culture was completely blind to the Irish language. Let’s take the example of the Irish equivalent of James, Séamus. (You could just as easily use Seán or Conall or Dónall as examples.) The name Séamus is quite common today and we know from various sources that where Irish was spoken, Séamus was a common name. Are any of them ever recorded that way? No. In Church records, they would have been recorded in Latin, as Jacobus. In land records, they would have been registered as the English James, whatever they called themselves or were known as by their neighbours. This would also have been the case in most of the civil registration. Look at any Gaeltacht area and you will find people registered as John, James, Hugh, Thomas, not as Seán, Séamus, Aodh or Tomás.
As Lonergan says, the Irish Síle was usually rendered as Julia, but apparently there were no Julias aboard the convict ships before 1828. I am not sure about this because a few years later, the ships were full of them. A list of the convicts in Tasmania (van Diemen’s Land) in the 1830s and 1840s gives a large number of Julias:
Ahern, Julia Australasia 246 20 17 March 1849 at Cork, Ireland
Boland, Julia Phoebe 724 28 March 1844 at Waterford, Ireland
Byrne, Julia Phoebe 717 30 31 August 1844 at Dublin (City), Ireland
Callaghan, Julia Maria II 965 20 October 1848 at Cork Co. October Sessions, Ireland
Connolly, Julia Emma Eugenia 1119 23 4 February 1850 at Newington Quarter Sessions, England
Cronin, Julia Earl Grey 1054 26 10 July 1849 at Cork Co., Ireland
Culnane, Julia Martin Luther 1252 23 30 June 1851 at Co Cork, Ireland
Daly, Julia Gilbert Henderson 275 21 19 September 1839 at Glasgow Cot. Justy., Scotland
Donovan, Julia Arabian 761 40 4 August 1846 at Cork City, Ireland
Doyle, Julia Hindostan 255 33.5 4 December 1838 at Lancaster (Liverpool) Quarter Sessions
Dwyer, Julia Jane II 153 19 18 October 1832 at Middlesex G.D., England
Farrell, Julia Maria II 419 20 October 1848 at Queens Co. Oct. Sessions, Ireland
Ferrin, Julia Waverley 235 56 18 April 1842 at Dublin (City), Ireland
Hastings, Julia Duke of Cornwall 869 47.5 13 April 1850 at Limerick Co., Ireland
Higgins, Julia Cadet 683 18 5 April 1847 at Central Criminal Court [Old Bailey], London,
Leary, Julia Kinnear 409 39 3 March 1848 at Cork City, Ireland
Lynch, Julia Martin Luther 541 32 9 July 1851 at Co Waterford, Ireland
Maher, Julia Earl Grey 1094 40 25 June 1849 at Kings Co., Ireland
Mahoney, Julia Atwick 264 19.5 14 August 1837 at Central Criminal Court, England
Mccarthy, Julia Blackfriar 1266 56 16 September 1850 at County Cork, Ireland
Mccarthy, Julia John William Dare 1356 24 14 December 1850 at Co. Cork, Ireland
Mccarthy, Julia Maria II 983 18 September 1848 at Co. Cork, Ireland
Mullins, Julia Providence II 50 18 15 September 1825 at London, England
Murphy, Julia Aurora II 1280 31 16 December 1850 at Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey),
Murphy, Julia Garland Grove 442 38 22 August 1842 at Central Criminal Court, England
Phillips, Julia John William Dare 454 30 4 June 1851 at Dublin City, Ireland
Pigott, Julia Waverley 357 26 16 October 1846 at Tipperary, Ireland
Reardon, Julia William Bryan 132 19 11 March 1833 at Middlesex, England
Smith, Julia Mexborough 478 24 6 January 1841 at Dublin, Ireland
Sullivan, Julia Australasia 887 22 20 March 1849 at Kerry, Ireland
Walsh, Julia John Calvin 729 22.5 3 August 1847 at Kildare, Ireland
Whelan, Julia Martin Luther 976 21 12 January 1852 at Queens Cty, Ireland
White, Julia Arabian 688 24 31 August 1846 at Dublin City, Ireland
Wilson, Julia Mary Anne III 403 32 27 April 1840 at Dublin City, Ireland
A fact that Lonergan fails to mention is that the name Síle was sometimes translated with the names Cecilia, Celia or Cecily, and there are a few of these:
Donohoe, Celia Mexborough 319 50 15 March 1841 at Galway, Ireland
Hart, Celia Hope 458 20 8 January 1842 at Sligo, Ireland
Hocks, Celia Maria II 783 20 October 1848 at Mayo Co. Oct. Sessions, Ireland
Kavanagh, Celia Earl Grey 383 18 12 July 1849 at Wexford, Ireland
Shannon, Celia Hope 507 21 5 April 1841 at Mayo, Ireland
Walsh, Celia Blackfriar 902 45 28 March 1849 at Mayo, Ireland
Carr, Cecilia Lord Auckland 942 24.5 17 January 1848 at Galway Town, Ireland
Connors, Cecilia Lord Auckland 951 35 6 April 1848 at Wexford, Ireland
Higgins, Cecilia Phoebe 591 36 17 October 1843 at Westmeath, Ireland
Egan, Cicely St Vincent 186 23 20 February 1848 at Lancaster, England
All these women were either convicted in Ireland or had unmistakeably Irish surnames, which means that most of them, if not all, were probably known as Síle rather than Julia or Cecilia.
So, Lonergan is wrong about the name Sheila and its variants. There is no doubt that it was a common enough name in 19th century Ireland. There is no doubt that some convicts called Síle were sent from Ireland to Australia under names like Julia and Cecilia around the time that the first reference to the word sheila is recorded in Australia. And there is certainly clear evidence that Sheila was a generic term for an Irish woman and that the name Sheila was associated with the name Patrick, as the St Patrick’s Day quotation from an Australian newspaper suggests.
Anyway, what is Lonergan’s distinct take on the word Sheila? Why does she want to ‘disprove’ the idea that the word Sheila in Australian slang refers to Irish women?
From what I can see, her suggestion is that síle doesn’t represent the Irish name but rather an expression for an effeminate man or a homosexual. Her theory seems to be that it was used by convicts of their gay lovers in the early days of settlement when there were few women and many men and that from this it was later used as a rather disrespectful term for a woman. In fact, the word síle is defined as homosexual in the excellent dictonary of sexual slang by Ó Luineacháin, a book I have referenced before in these pages and there is no doubt that it is linked to effeminacy in earlier Irish dictionaries going back to Dinneen’s second edition in 1927. (it isn’t mentioned in the first edition in 1904). To the best of my knowledge, there is no source dating back before 1927. And of course, though there is evidence that síle has been used as a term for an effeminate male in the twentieth century, this is a subsidiary use of the female name Síle. It’s not a separate word with a separate origin.
In fact, if we look for the origin of Síle in the sense of an effeminate male, I would suggest the most likely scenario is that síle in this sense is a conscious recreation of the English word sissy. There is some doubt in English whether sissy is from a shortened form of sister or a shortened form of Cecilia, which would put it in the same class as terms like Molly and Nancy, both of which have been used to describe men who don’t conform to gender stereotypes. However, apparently the pejorative use of sissy only dates back in American English to 1885-1890 and it quickly spread to the English of Britain and (presumably) Ireland. Because Sissy is used in Ireland (including in Irish-speaking areas) as a pet name for Síle/Sheila, it seems likely that people who were bilingual and aware of the meaning of sissy in English could have used the name Síle as an Irish equivalent of sissy. If this is the case, the use of síle for an effeminate person probably wouldn’t date back before 1890.
Of course, there’s no evidence that Síle for an effeminate man is modelled on English sissy but by the same token, there is no evidence that síle was used to refer to effeminate people or gay people in Irish prior to the 1920s.
There’s also nothing in the Australian uses of Sheila to suggest that it originally applied to homosexual relationships among convicts. Of course, if it were true, it would be a great story. So male chauvinist pigs who dismissively talk about sheilas are actually using a term originally used by gay convicts to describe their boyfriends? How delicious is the irony there? But of course, the fact that it’s a good narrative should make us even more careful and sceptical, not less. Who cares if it’s a good story if it isn’t true? Where’s the evidence?
And of course, it has been spread far and wide because it’s a good story, not because Lonergan has any evidence or any good reason for thinking it’s true. She seems to have a child-like love of publicity and this is what drives her sub-standard and ludicrous research.