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September 9 marked the 119th birthday of Sheila Chisholm (named Margaret, and always known by her middle name). It was a century ago that Sheila left Sydney for her grand tour of Europe. A striking beauty with short auburn hair, lovely complexion, and big hazel eyes, she had grown up on a sheep station in country New South Wales, and was an accomplished horsewoman, and daring swimmer, popular as a good dancer with a sense of humour.

Once arrived in England, Sheila barely had time to “come out” for her first London Season before war was declared, and she headed off to Cairo to nurse wounded soldiers. During the war, she married the eldest son of a Scottish earl, Lord Loughborough (“Luffy”), and became a fixture of smart London society in the Prince of Wales set, admired for her languorous beauty, calm presence, and exotic colonial background.

Her marriage deteriorated, as Luffy was a gambling addict and unfaithful (both were considered acceptable for a man of his class). Sheila also took lovers, amongst them Prince Albert, known to his friends as Bertie. Bertie was entranced by Sheila as soon as they met, and the two became inseparable. King George V naturally wasn’t thrilled, and demanded that Bertie end it: his obedience was rewarded with a dukedom, and he soon married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Bertie later became King George VI, the father of the present queen.

Sheila also received attention from married Russian prince Serge Obolensky, American billionaire Vincent Astor (Serge was his brother-in-law), and film star Rudolph Valentino. However, after her divorce she married English baronet Sir John Milbanke (“Buffles”), and continued her ascent in society. She threw lavish parties, and was friends with celebrities like actor Fred Astaire, socialites Lady Diana Cooper and Wallis Simpson, and writers Noel Coward, Nancy Mitford, and Evelyn Waugh (she gave Waugh the idea for The Loved One).

In the post-war years, after being widowed, she not only became a millionaire businesswoman in the travel industry, but married an exiled Russian prince who was the cousin of her old flame, Obolensky. Sheila was very happy in her marriage to Dmitri Romanoff, so ended her amazing life as a princess.

Sheila’s biography, by journalist Robert Wainwright, is called Sheila: The Australian beauty who bewitched British society. Just published this year, the author has hinted of a possible TV deal – “It’s Downton (Abbey) meets Neighbours“. Keep an eye out!

Sheila is an Anglicised form of the Irish name Síle or Sìle, a medieval Gaelic form of the name Celia (although often understood as a form of Cecilia). It has several variant spellings, including Sheelagh and Shelagh. Rather confusingly, the name Sheila has historically been hyper-Anglicised to Julia.

The name Sheila has a special place in Ireland’s history, because in the patriotic traditions of the 17th century, it was one of the allegorical female names used to stand for Ireland (like Erin and Kathleen). In ballads, Sheelagh is a feminine personification of Ireland, a sovereignty goddess who is wasting away as she lacks a royal suitor. In political pamphlets, Sheelagh was a lady whose health suffered due to the violence inflicted on her by “Mr Bull”.

According to folklore, Sheelah was the name of St Patrick’s wife, or in other traditions, his mother. Irish communities celebrated St Sheelah’s Day on March 18: some say it was a day to sober up, while others saw it as a chance to continue the celebrations. St Sheelah’s health was to be drunk in whiskey, and the shamrock was worn on her day also. St Sheelah’s Day has been associated with snow storms, and in many stories she becomes an old crone, who quarrels with St Patrick and puts a spell of bad weather on the country out of spite. This makes St Sheelah seem more of a weather goddess than anything else – she is certainly not very saintly!

Another Irish connection to the name is the mysterious Sheela na Gig – grotesque carvings of a naked woman displaying an exaggerated vulva. They are all over Europe, but particularly in Ireland; they are often found on churches, and like gargoyles, their hideous appearance is said to drive away evil spirits. The name Sheela na Gig is usually translated as something like “Sheela showing her vagina”.

It is thought that Sheela na Gig represents a Celtic pagan goddess, perhaps a divine hag, or fertility figure. It is hard not to be struck by the coincidence of a “hag” named Sheela and the crone-like St Sheelah, and many note the similarity in sound between Sheela and the Gaelic word sidhe (pronounced SHEE), referring to a race of fairy-like beings who are the remnants of gods and goddesses. All very evocative and enigmatic.

Another riddle is how the name Sheila became Australian slang to mean “woman, girlfriend”. The first use of the slang dates to 1822, and the usual explanation is that Sheila was a common Irish name, and so widespread amongst Irish emigrants to Australia that it became a de facto term to mean “Irish woman”, the female equivalent of Paddy for an Irish man.

However Dr Dymphna Lonergen, an academic who specialises in the Irish language in Australia, notes that this makes little sense. Sheila isn’t a common Irish name, and not even a single woman called Sheila was transported to Australia in the 18th century. There were much larger numbers of Irish emigrants to Britain and America than to Australia, and Sheila never became a generic term for an Irishwoman there – in the US, the term for an Irishwoman is Biddy, short for Bridget.

She suggests that the term derives from Irish slang, where Sìle was used as a derogatory term for a man judged to be weak or effeminate, overly fond of female society and domestic pursuits, or a homosexual (this last sense is a “taboo” word, or underworld slang). Presumably the slang quickly became transferred from “womanish men” to actual women.

Whether the word remained derogatory is still up for debate! However, Robert Wainwright says that the phrase “good looking sheila” dates to the 1920s – the time when Sheila Chisholm first became well known in society. Could this stunning, vivacious Australian woman have inspired its use? If so, it seems like a great compliment.

The name Sheila was #236 in the 1900s, but joined the Top 100 in the 1910s at #83. It peaked in the 1920s at #67, and by the 1930s was already out of the Top 100. It hasn’t charted since the 1950s, and can be seen as a “trendy” name of the 1910s and ’20s (the time when Sheila Chisholm was most in the Australian society pages, and before sheila became widely used slang).

Although it’s often thought as very Australian, the name Sheila enjoyed more popularity in the United States, where it was Top 100 from the 1940s to the 1970s, and peaked higher at #50. It only left the charts in the late 2000s. In the UK, it was far more popular still, and Top 100 from the 1920s (when Sheila Chisholm entered the social scene) to the 1960s (when she died), and peaked at #6 in the 1930s. Last year 10 baby girls in England/Wales were named Sheila, a number which has held steady since 1996.

Disappointed that nobody much in Australia seems to have been named Sheila since around the ’50s? Fear not, because modern variants of Sheila abound here, such as Shayla, Shaylah, Shailah, Shyla, and Shylah, influenced by names like Kayla and Skyla. If they were all added together as one name (even though they sound different), Sheila would be somewhere in in the 100s, so not really that rare at all.

The name Sheila received an approval rating of 31%. People saw the name Sheila as too closely associated with the slang term (27%), and too dated (17%). However, 14% thought it seemed cool, retro, and deserving of a comeback. Only one person thought Sheila made a geat Irish heritage choice.

(Portrait of Sheila Chisholm by Cecil Beaton, held by the National Portrait Gallery in London, courtesy of the Rosslyn Family Estate)