Interviews > Tara McLoughlin

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A sheela in England. The oval shape between the legs is representative of female genitalia.
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This sheela is in the National Museum of Ireland, which has the largest collection of these stone figures in the world.
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(More sheela photos are on Tara's website)

On Sheelas...
Interview with Tara McLoughlin about the mysterious stone carvings scattered around Ireland and Europe

by Holly Russo

Before I met Tara McLoughlin, I had never heard of a "sheela-na-gig"-- medieval stone carvings of female figures ripping open their genitals. (Well not really "ripping" them open, more like holding them open, wide and exposed.) What do they mean? No one really knows for sure. Ideas abound, however, and back in the early days of the internet, Tara posted online current theories along with photos and text from her field research in Ireland. I had a million questions to ask about her discoveries and how she became inspired to learn more; below is an interview about her work:

You have described sheela-na-gigs as female exhibitionist carvings from the middle ages that are found around Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. What do they look like -- how would you describe them to someone who had never seen one?

Although each sheela-na-gig is unique, they all “exhibitionist” figures—that is, they share the common, distinguishable trait of very prominent, exaggerated, enlarged genitalia, often held open by the figures’ hands.  Other than that, they are a fairly diverse lot--some are crouched down in squatting positions, while others are standing upright.  Some are bald, while others have ornate hairstyles.  Some have menacing or pained expressions, while others have enigmatic smiles.

How did you first hear about sheela-na-gigs?

I was at a Gaelic Society event when I was a student at NYU.  I saw a film about the concept of “Mother Ireland”, in which they asked all these prominent Irish people who should personify mother Ireland.  One professor suggested that sheela-na-gig would make the perfect Mother Ireland, which caused a number of the NYU Gaelic Studies professors to burst out laughing.  I had never heard of sheela-na-gigs, and was amazed to learn that these rather bawdy figures were on display on all kinds of structures and buildings in Ireland, including Catholic churches (!), so I started doing research, and I was hooked!
What does sheela-na-gig mean? Are there other spellings?

There are a number of interpretations of the name, but no definitive information.  The name "sheela-na-gig" was most likely derived from the Irish language. The two most common translations are "Sile na gCioch" ("sheela of the breasts") or "Sile-ina-Giob" ("sheela on her hunkers"). I have also seen it spelled “Sile-na-gig”—“Sile” is the Irish version of “sheela”.  Sometimes “gig” is pronounced “gheee”. 

The word “sheila” is slang for a hag or crone.  The term survives even today among the Irish Diaspora—an Australian friend reminded me that back home, “sheila” is slang for a woman of any age (I confirmed this during a recent trip to the Outback restaurant—the ladies’ room is labeled “SHEILAS”.  If that is not authentic research, I’m not sure what is!)

How old are they, in general?

This is a tough question to answer.  Most of the original figures date from the middle ages.  Some are as old as the 5th century, and some are as “new” as the 18th century.  There has been a resurgence in interest in the figures in recent years, and people have put up replicas of figures that were once on certain structures, but are now lost or stolen (or in a museum).  So I guess they date all the way to the present!

The surviving sheela-na-gigs are all carved in stone, and are therefore often dated to the same time as the structures they are on (or near).  This has led to the assumption that they are mostly from the middle ages, yet the carvings themselves may very well be from a much older tradition.

You mentioned that there is very little literature about their history, so while there are many theories of what they stand for, it isn't known for sure. What are some of the interpretations and do you favor any?

Despite their similarities, as I have said before, sheela-na-gigs are a diverse bunch.  Since they were erected on many different kinds of structures and places over hundreds (thousands?) of years, there is no “one-size-fits-all” interpretation.  Interpretations of the figures generally fall into four main categories: fertility icons, warnings against sins of the flesh, representations of a figure from the old Celtic goddess trinity, and protection from evil.

I think I favor (or at least find most interesting) the theory shared with me by Sligo Artist Michael Quirke. He believes that the sheela image is the third in the Celtic goddess trinity of maiden-mother-crone. In her aspect as the crone, she invites humanity back into her womb to death. Through this stark figure, we are reminded that we are all born of Mother Earth, and we will all return to the earth in death (through the same "door"--the womb of the earth).
Does anyone know who made them?

Well, in most cases, it would likely be the skilled stonemasons who did the other work on the structures.  For the cruder, more weathered, more remote, free-standing figures (like the ones at Tara and Stepaside), I think we have no idea.
What is their significance today? In some cases, they are still "used" by people, can you give an example of how? (I am remembering the one you said that had been "in use" for someone giving birth, that is really interesting to me.)

One of the things I really love about sheela-na-gigs is that (despite what they might have signified in the past) they have been adopted by modern feminists as a symbol of female power.  Now that’s the kind of revisionist history I can get behind! :)   I have heard that they are indeed “in use” in several areas—mostly to aid fertility or to ease childbirth, as you mentioned.  In fact, I “used” a sheela talisman myself in the delivery room when I was giving birth to my son.  Twenty-four hours of labor, four hours of pushing, and a c-section later, I think I should have stuck with the Willendorf Goddess!
Do you have any favorite Sheela's?

I never met a sheela I did not like!  The Kilpeck sheela is the most famous one of all, and I love her enigmatic, Mona Lisa-like smile.  I love the intensity of expression on the face of the Fethard Wall sheela.  I love the Hill of Tara sheela for sentimental reasons (I was named Tara, because my maternal grandma was born there).  And I loved seeing the Swords Glebe Sheela, now stored in the basement of the National Museum of Ireland, because she guarded the garden in which my maternal grandfather worked as a caretaker—he must have passed her every day on his way to work.
When did you first put up your Sheela-na-gig website, and how long had you been documenting them beforehand?

I started going on “sheela pilgrimages” in 1994, and I think I first put up the website in 1999 or 2000.  The site is in desperate need of a refresh, and I am in desperate need of another pilgrimage!
I thought it was fascinating that you mentioned almost everyone in Ireland has heard of them, but not many people in the U.S. Yet not that long ago, they were not commonly known even in the places they are found. Did this surprise you?

I wouldn’t say that “everyone” in Ireland has heard of them.  When I started my research in 1994, it was common for people living near sheelas to not know they were there.  Since then, there has been a lot of publicity about the figures:  art exhibits, newspaper articles, television specials, etc. so more people know about them.  There was even an episode of “Ballykissangel” (a BBC TV drama set in a fictitious small town in Ireland, and occasionally shown stateside on PBS) that featured the discovery of a sheela-na-gig.

It didn’t surprise me that I, as a tourist, knew something about a figure in someone’s hometown and they had never heard of it.  Living in DC, my visiting friends and relatives are always teaching me about the local treasures of art, architecture, history etc. that I did not know about.
Were there any sheelas you set out to visit that were particularly hard to find or difficult to access?

Many sheelas are located in remote areas that are very hard to access.  I have had to scale slick, moss-covered walls, navigate over electric fences, and cross fields guarded by angry bulls in order to get some of the shots.  Worth it every time!
Where are some other uncommon locations (e.g. Europe) that you know of? (You also mentioned they're on some of the pilgrimage pathways and I also thought that was fascinating.)

There are “exhibitionist” carvings in many places throughout the world.  Ireland has the largest concentration of sheela-na-gig figures, but there are a good number in England, Scotland, Wales, France, and Spain—some, as you mentioned, in and on churches along the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.
Are there any museums in the states people could visit to learn more? Or would they have to travel abroad?

I’m not familiar with any museums in the States that have information on sheela-na-gigs.  The best source of information is of course the Internet—you can find detailed descriptions of locations, photographs, listservs, poems, artwork--you name it.  The National Museum of Ireland houses the largest collection of sheela-na-gigs, but only two are on permanent exhibit.  To see the rest, you have to make special arrangements with the museum in writing well in advance.
It seems like a time-intensive research process and I would be interested to know if you set out with the idea of creating a resource in mind (as you have done) or if you just sought the info out of sheer curiosity.

It was mostly out of sheer curiosity/fascination.  I had a big pile of photos, clippings, art books, etc after my last trip, and figured why not put it up?  I am so glad I did!  I have met some really wonderful people as a result of putting up the site.  Two particularly neat things that have happened were getting two of the photos on my site published in scholarly books.  My shot of the Kilsarkan sheela appears in Rufus Camphausen’s Encyclopedia of Sacred Sexuality, and my shot of the Clonmacnoise sheela is going to be on the cover of the book English Loathly Ladies:  Tales, Boundaries, Traditions and Motifs by Elizabeth Passmore and Susan Carter which was published this month.

While I am glad that my pages are a nice resource, there are sites out there that are by far more educational and comprehensive than mine.  I just focused on telling the stories that interested me.

Is there anything else you'd like to share about your experience in finding these figures and discovering more about them?

One of the really cool things about looking for these figures is that you always happen upon people and places you would never have visited had you not been on the hunt.  I have seen fascinating little towns, visited ancient castles with cows grazing nonchalantly in the ruins of their ballrooms, had the best meal of my life in a restaurant in a corn loft in literally the middle of Ireland, and met an endless string of fascinating characters.

In addition, the resurgence of interest in these figures has led to the (re)discovery of dozens of new sheelas in recent years.  This is so fascinating to me, and I am delighted to know that there are “new” sheelas popping up just about every month.  I think, however, that some of the new discoverers are a wee bit overzealous in their interpretations.  In 2005, my husband and I went to see Beltony Stone Circle near Raphoe, Co. Donegal, because one of the members of the sheela listserv had heard that a sheela had been found on the keystone there.  It was a spectacular stone circle—largely intact, and aligned with the rising sun on May 1 (Bealtane, the first day of summer on the Celtic calendar).  But the figure on the stone really just looked like shadows mixed with lichens and bird droppings to me.  Still, it was an amazing site, and I’m thrilled that we made the detour to see it.

With regard to future discoveries, one of my “If I won the lottery…” activities would certainly be to go around Ireland for a year or so to visit every single known sheela that is still in situ, and to catalog the location with a GPS.  There are a number of sheela enthusiasts out there who have put up great sites with precise directions (Gay Cannon’s amazing site lists over one hundred sheelas!).  But adding the GPS citations would truly modernize the process of finding these ancient figures.

For more information, please visit Tara's Sheela website .