According to legend, Sheila Na Geira (also spelled NaGeira and Nagira) was an Irish aristocrat or princess who, 300 or 400 years ago, while travelling between France and Ireland, was captured by a Dutch warship and then rescued by British privateers. She fell in love and was married to one of the privateers, Lieutenant Gilbert Pike. They settled at western Conception Bay. By the early 20th century, the legend was being told as part of Newfoundland’s oral tradition, and has since been popularized by poems, novels, scholarly articles and several plays.
The Story of Sheila Na Geira
Newfoundland has a rich history of oral folk narratives. Among them is the legend of Sheila Na Geira, which was being told by the turn of the 20th century. In the late 1800s, the Pikes of Carbonear were noted to be Newfoundland’s largest family, and they claimed Na Geira as their ancestor.
In 1934, the story was written down for the first time. William A. Munn wrote in a Newfoundland Quarterly article about the history of the town of Harbour Grace. In the 16th or 17th centuries, an Irish aristocrat (later described as a princess) named Sheila Nagira was on a ship sailing from Ireland to France to attend a convent school. A Dutch warship captured her ship. The Dutch ship was then overtaken by a fleet captained by Peter Easton, who was operating under letters of marque from the British King. Easton continued his voyage across the Atlantic. While enroute, Na Geira and one of the privateers, Lieutenant Gilbert Pike, fell in love and were married.
Easton anchored his fleet at Newfoundland’s western Conception Bay at what became the town of Harbour Grace. When Easton declared it time to leave, Na Geira and Pike decided to stay. They built a home at Mosquito (later Bristol’s Hope).
It is a fact that Peter Easton served as a sailor and privateer, and that in 1602, his fleet arrived in Newfoundland to protect a British fishing expedition. It can also be verified that the Pike family had been residing in Newfoundland longer than most families, and had been concentrated around the area where the story takes place. Beyond that, however, nothing in the story can be reliably verified. That the tale of Sheila Na Geira has little basis in fact does not diminish its importance as a legend.
The Sheila Na Geira Legend
Folklorist Philip Hiscock has suggested that Munn’s 1934 article about the legend might have resonated with Newfoundlanders because, at the time, the Great Depression had led to the collapse of Newfoundland’s economy and a resumption of British colonial rule. With many Newfoundlanders feeling oppressed and inferior, the legend offered a source of pride because it suggested that many of them were descended from aristocratic, perhaps even royal, pedigree.
By the 1940s, the legend had become well known. It was being taught in schools. It was also published in The Newfoundlander, a newspaper read in nearly every home on the island.
Newfoundland society was divided by a 1948 referendum in which a narrow majority decided not to remain a colony or become independent, but to join Canada. Newfoundland became a Canadian province the following year. (See Newfoundland and Labrador and Confederation.) The turbulent years that followed saw a resurgence of interest in the legend. In 1955, L. E. F. English wrote a poem entitled The Ballad of Sheila Na Geira. The long lyrical poem included details not found in Munn’s original account, such as Na Geira’s hair being black and word-for-word accounts of conversations.
In 1958, P. J. Wakeham published a 338-page novel entitled Princess Sheila: A Newfoundland Story. It sold a remarkable 5,000 copies in Newfoundland by the end of 1959. Wakeham invented more details, such as her having two children; her father having been John, the King of County Down, Ireland; and her having lived until the age of 105. In his 1934 account, William Munn had spelled Sheila’s surname Nagira, while Wakeman spelled it Na Geira. Modern spelling tends to be closer to Wakeman’s version, and the details in his version of the legend became the basis for subsequent iterations. Wakeman wrote of a gravestone inscribed and dedicated to Sheila but no stone with that inscription has ever been found. In 2004, a new stone that included details from Wakeman’s telling of the story was placed at the old Pike property rumoured to be the site of Na Geira's burial.
Revitalization of the Legend
After feminism’s second wave in the 1980s, the Sheila Na Geira legend became a source of feminist inspiration. A 1987 edition of Wakeman’s book contained a forward that praised Sheila as, “a woman of courage, intelligence and dedication.”
The 1990s witnessed a revitalization of the storytelling tradition in Newfoundland and, with it, a resurgence of interest in the legend. Carbonear became home to the Sheila NaGeira Theatre, and she has been on the town’s coat of arms and flag. Chuck Herriot’s musical play entitled Sheila Na Geira: A Legend of Love and Larceny premiered in Carbonear in 1997. Gord Carruth also wrote a musical play entitled The Princess & the Pirate. Paul Butler’s three short novels added colour and detail to Sheila Na Geria’s story: Easton (2004), Easton’s Gold (2005) and NaGeira (2006).
The Sheila Na Geira legend has been an important as part of Newfoundland’s oral tradition which, according to historian Shannon Ryan, creates and maintains a perspective that protects the unity and structure of society.