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Subject: Sheela na Guira
From: Michael Robinson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:[log in to unmask]
Date:Wed, 22 Oct 1997 22:46:27 -0700

text/plain (67 lines)

"W. B. OLSON" wrote:

>I think someone has confused "Sheila na Guira" with "Sheela na
>Gigg" (given the way the Gaelic was spelled in phonetic English,
>this is not hard to do). These are different 18th century Irish
>tune titles, both tunes being used for songs in Kane O'Hara's
>'Midas', 1764.

Yes, but I wasn't referring to tune titles, but the names of
pieces of medieval sculpture.

>"Sheela na Guira" seems to be the older. B. Thumoth gave it as
>"Chiling O guiry" in '12 Scotch and 12 Irish Airs', c 1744. James
>Boswell reported hearing the tune on the streets of London, June
>10, 1763. The song is said to be by Tadg O'Sullivan and in
>O'Daly's 'Poets and Poetry of Munster' (Darley & McCall
>collection, notes to #57), which I have not seen. Anyone have the
>lyrics?  The title was also given in 18th and early 19th century
>works as Shilley O Guire, Shilling o' Gairey, Shillinaguira,
>Sheeling O Guira, Chilling a Guirie. [This seems to be found in
>6/8 about as often as in 3/4.]

>The earliest copy I've run across of "Sheela na Gigg" is under
>the title "The Irish Pot stick" in J. Oswald's 'Caledonian Pocket
>Companion', bk 9, c 1758. The tune is "Shilling a Gig" in
>Brysson's 'Curious Collection', 1791, and "Sheela na Gigg" in
>Hime's '48 Original Irish Dances', c 1795.

Ah yes, my old grand-dad used to charge a shilling a gig.

This is all very interesting.  The term "shiela na gig" in reference
to the old erotic stone carvings seems to have been recorded in
the 1840s or shortly before, and nobody is quite sure what
it means.  It was recorded by a member of the Society of Antiquaries
in Dublin from one of "the country people".  It has been suggested
that it is "Sighle na gci/och", meaning "Shiela of the breasts".
But it is quite another body part that is emphasized in the sculpture.

According to the book I'm reading, there's a certain amount of
evidence that this relates to one of those old folk customs that
were so thoroughly suppressed by the Church, during or just after the
Famine, that very little evidence of their existence still remains.

There still remains some folk-lore regarding female exhibitionism
being able to stop a charging bull, faction fight, etc.  This is
not only in Ireland but in other countries such as France and Italy.
In fact male exhibitionism works too, like those necklaces that Italians
often wear to avert the evil eye, which can be found back to Roman
times, except that back then it was much clearer what they were supposed
to be depicting.

But getting back to Ireland, there are a few old references to ritual
exhibitionism in traditional Irish society.  Getting back to the book,
the author claims that there were impoverished women who would expose
themselves for a fee, which was supposed to get rid of ill-luck.
(Gives a different slant to "Banish Misfortune", doesn't it?)  And it
was these women who were known as "Shiela na Gig", and the term was
applied only secondarily to the carvings, although of course they were
part of the same belief system.

So it would certainly be very interesting if we could dig out
some of those words, or some other references that go back before
the 1840s.
Michael Robinson
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