Nfld. & Labrador

Who's Sheila, and what's with her brush? Here's the folklore behind the term

It's an odd name for a late-winter storm. This scholar tells us where it comes from.

Folklorist Philip Hiscock explains the history of the bewildering Newfoundland term

Sunshine had melted most of winter's buildup in parts of Newfoundland, but an incoming spring storm could blanket the island once more. Painter Helen Gregory drew on a version of the legend that had Sheila tossing out dishwater, causing a storm. (CBC)

Newfoundland is hunkering down for a vicious spring storm this weekend, as an incoming weather system promises to ignore the calendar and dump freezing rain and snow across the island.

Following days of balmy temperatures hitting the teens, some regions are anticipating the incoming weather system with contempt and disappointment.

But a late-March storm is far from unprecedented in the North Atlantic: in fact, it's so familiar, it even has its own special name.

Enter "Sheila's Brush," a moniker for the unseasonal blast of snow and wind suffered by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians after St. Patrick's Day.

But … who's Sheila, and why do we care about her brush?

The joke's on St. Patrick

Folklorist Philip Hiscock can explain.

"It's townie folklore, but it's also maritime folklore and it's also Irish folklore," Hiscock said. "The simple answer is that it's a bit of snow that falls on March 18th around St. John's."

But nothing in his discipline is ever really simple, he adds.

The meaning of Sheila's Brush has morphed over time. Today, Hiscock said, some people use it in reference to the last snowstorm of the year. 

Regardless of its exact meaning, Hiscock said researchers are relatively certain about its source.

"This Sheila is the Sheila that was associated, by long-standing Irish folklore, with St. Patrick," Hiscock said.

Some tales characterize her as a girlfriend. In other renditions, she's Paddy's wife.

The CBC's Jeremy Eaton tries to figure out who Sheila is, and turns to folklorist Philip Hiscock for help:

The folklore behind "Sheila's brush"

Here and Now

3 months ago
The term has its roots in Irish legend, and in Newfoundland, it usually refers to the last major snowstorm of the season. 1:48

"There's many stories about who Sheila was and what she was like," he continues. Some of the stories even portray her as a "really saucy woman that Patrick ran into while he was wandering around, driving the snakes from Ireland."

When a parched Patrick asked her for water, Sheila flicked some soap bubbles in his direction. Those flakes transformed into a snowstorm, one version of the legend goes.

Reports of Sheila's antics date back at least 300 years, according to Hiscock. But around the 1880s, "Sheila's Day" emerged as an excuse for drunken sailors to recover after their Paddy's Day celebrations — they blamed her for their ailments, Hiscock said.

"That's as important as Paddy's Day, and let the man rest," he said. "It became a kind of joking holiday in itself."

From wind to snow

But there's a maritime spin on the legend, too, which stretches back at least a couple hundred years.

In the North Atlantic, "there's a tradition among seamen that a big windstorm can be expected … around the time of the spring equinox," Hiscock said.

In St. John's, about 125 years ago, "people would call a big windstorm that blew up in the first few days after the equinox Sheila's Brush, because they knew the tradition of Sheila's Day."

Around mid-century, the legend changed slightly, eliminating the part about wind. Hiscock suggests that's because of a rhyme that caught on around the Avalon in the early 1900s.

"'Patrick walks the shores around, and Sheila follows in a long white gown,'" he recites: the gown, of course, symbolizing snow.

But what about her brush? It's generally understood that Sheila's wrath — or prank, depending on how you interpret it — sweeps the last of the winter season away.

Hopefully, this time around, her efforts last until next year.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Jeremy Eaton