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LETTER: Sheila NaGeira should be regarded as folklore, writes heritage society chair

An article headlined “Of pirates and a princess” that appeared in the Sept. 2 print edition of The Compass and authored by Danette Dooley refers to the story of Sheila NaGeira as “history."

Dawn Baker, the author of the children’s book "A Newfoundland Adventure," appears to promote the story of Sheila NaGeira and Gilbert Pike as being historical fact. These statements: “A history lesson is exactly what curious children who read this book will walk away with” and “a history lesson is playing out in her young readers minds," leaves no doubt of the intention to make Sheila NaGeira a real historical figure.

This lore of Sheila and Gilbert has no basis in recorded fact. The legend doesn’t even appear in oral tradition until the early 1900s. There is no mention of Sheila, or even Gilbert Pike, in any records in England, Ireland, Newfoundland, or France. This has been researched multiple times by many credible historians.

It is purported by some writers that Sheila had the first white child born in Newfoundland before John Guy came here in 1610. P.J. Wakeham, in his fictional romance novel about "Sheila and Gilbert" (1958), asserts that her headstone, just off Pike’s Lane, reads that she "died in 1753 at the age of 105."

This would make her approximately 145 years of age. Is this even possible? Others report that she lived to be 98 when the average life span in the 17th century was about 40 years of age.

And where is Gilbert? Usually, couples are buried adjacent to each other sharing a common grave marker. There is no mention of our pirate. He has completely disappeared. The true markings on the headstone off Pike’s Lane indicate that it is the resting place of John and Juliann Pike and not that of Sheila NaGeira.

The Town of Carbonear has placed a monument adjacent to the Pike marker nearby indicating that this is the place where the legendary princess is buried. Such an undertaking does not make the story a true one. In addition, the romance novel by P.J. Wakeham, based on Sheila’s and Gilbert’s life in Bristol’s Hope and Carbonear, is complete fiction.

One of the proponents of the Princess Sheila Na Geira legend was Joseph Smallwood when he appeared on the radio as “The Barrelman."

He mentioned Sheila and Gilbert in several of his broadcasts. These stories were based on what he was told by residents of Carbonear and environs and not on recorded fact. In 1940 he published a booklet on Sheila and Gilbert that was available to all teachers in Newfoundland as resource material for their students. Was there a bibliography of reputable references? Actually there was none, other than interviews, which culminate in folklore.

The Heritage Society has been asked, on occasion by tourists, to show them the house where Princess Sheila lived. They are disappointed and somewhat disgruntled when they discover that Sheila was not a real person but a local folklore heroine. They felt misled by the advertising and hype that surrounds this blond-haired princess, as portrayed on the town’s logo.

There were so many real people who made history in the Town of Carbonear, one of whom was Nicholas Guy. Nicholas moved from Cupids or Cupers Cove to become one of the first planters here in Carbonear. His efforts of settlement here in the 1600s are not recognized in any nomenclature of the town. It was these early planters and their workers who should be recognized and who contributed greatly to the growth of our town. Why do we cling so desperately to a Princess Sheila story?

The Sheila NaGeira story should be regarded as folklore, yet funnily enough, it is becoming more real with every telling. I implore the readers of Dawn Baker’s book and the article by Danette Dooley not to interpret “A Newfoundland Adventure” as anything more that light children’s entertainment. Please do not link it to “history."

Until more credible evidence of the existence of a princess with an Irish heritage unfolds, Shelia’s story should be taken with a very large dose of salt.

Gilbert Pike, retired teacher and past-president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teacher’s Association, did extensive research on the Pike family of Carbonear (1999). Nowhere in his research is there a link between his family and that of a Sheila NaGeira. He states that in his preamble. Although there is a Gilbert Pike, it is not the same Gilbert who was once a member of Easton’s pirate crew.

It would give me great pleasure to know that someone discovered a credible, recorded, 17th or 18th century reference to either Sheila or Gilbert. I would suggest that anyone promoting the Sheila story note that it is folklore and not recorded history.

The best researched and well written account on Sheila NaGeira is one by MUN professor, Philip Hiscock, in “Newfoundland Studies” Vol.18, No. 2, Fall 2002.

It is titled “A Perfect Princess: The Twentieth-Century Legend of Sheila NaGeira and Gilbert Pike."

— Ron Howell is chairman of the Carbonear Heritage Society

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