Car­bon­ear’s princess

The Compass - - OPINION -

New­found­land has been brushed by the great, the not-so­great, and the in­grate. It has also rubbed shoul­ders with roy­alty, in­clud­ing kings, queens, princes and princesses. One of the best­known royal legends is Sheila NaGeira, the so-called Ir­ish princess.

Tra­di­tion claims she was the first Euro­pean woman to give birth in New­found­land and, pos­si­bly, in North Amer­ica. She also holds the three­fold dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the is­land’s first school­teacher, mid­wife and herbal doc­tor.

How­ever, saner logic should pre­vail when one re­al­izes there are no ex­tant his­tor­i­cal records even at­test­ing to her ex­is­tence. Still, the mythol­ogy sur­round­ing Sheila NaGeira per­sists, seem­ingly gain­ing mo­men­tum with each retelling.

She was born in Ire­land, but her spe­cific date of birth and death are lost to the mists of his­tory. How­ever, she flour­ished be­tween 1602 and 1620.

She was the daugh­ter of a tribal chief­tain of Con­naught, a de­scen­dant of the Celtic kings. Be­cause the Con­naught throne was claimed by Sir Hugh O’Con­nor, her maiden name may have been O’Con­nor. The nick­name “NaGeira” may have been de­rived from a Gaelic word for “ beau­ti­ful.”

When she was a young woman, her fam­ily sent her to a French con­vent. Be­fore her ship reached Brit­tany, though, it was seized by the Dutch, then looted and sunk. All hands were taken pris­oner.

When res­cue came, it was at the hands of a naval ves­sel mak­ing its way to New­found­land un­der the com­mand of one Peter Easton, an English pi­rate who was a leg­end in his own right. He de­feated the Dutch war­ship.

What­ever else hap­pened on the fate­ful voy­age, Sheila fell in love with an of­fi­cer by the name of Gil­bert Pike. There was even a ship­board mar­riage cer­e­mony.

The ship landed in New­found­land. Mr. and Mrs. Pike - Gil­bert and Sheila - made the de­ci­sion to set­tle in Con­cep­tion Bay, specif­i­cally at Mos­quito, a sub­urb of Har­bour Grace now known as Bris­tol’s Hope. Gil­bert hung out his shin­gle as a fish­er­man. Sheila was one of the few, if not the only, Euro­pean woman liv­ing on that part of the coast in the early sev­en­teenth cen­tury.

Many of the Ir­ish fish­er­men nick­named her Princess Shelia or the Ir­ish Princess. She ev­i­dently had a child, per­haps two, which of course would have been the first child of Euro­pean de­scent born in New­found­land. The well-known writer, Harold Hor­wood, states the Pikes “ founded the old­est and one of the largest fam­i­lies in Canada.”

In 1603, fol­low­ing the end of the El­iz­a­bethan War with Spain, King James 1 ( 1566-1625) moth­balled the Royal Navy. Easton, along with many other naval of­fi­cers, turned to piracy.

By 1612, Easton and his men were wreak­ing havoc on Con­cep­tion Bay. It was feared that Mos­quito, like many other small com­mu­ni­ties, would suc­cumb to the venge­ful and im­pul­sive pi­rates.

Princess Sheila NaGeira and her fam­ily made their es­cape to Car­bon­ear Is­land, which Easton had failed to cap­ture. The Pikes sub­se­quently be­came known as the founders of the Town of Car­bon­ear. Not with­out rea­son do thou­sands of Pikes to­day trace their an­ces­try to Gil­bert and Sheila Pike.

The leg­end of the Ir­ish princess picked up steam and earned her im­mor­tal­ity as she nursed the sick us­ing noth­ing but home­made reme­dies. She was also known for car­ing for those less for­tu­nate than her­self.

Such tales of un­re­strained imag­i­na­tion of­ten carry other tid­bits of ques­tion­able in­for­ma­tion. In her case, she is said to have lived to the age of 105.

To­day en­tire books have been writ­ten on Sheila NaGeira, both P.J. Wake­ham ( Princess Sheila) and Paul But­ler (NaGeira) recre­at­ing her life in fic­tional form.

How much is fact and how much is fancy we may never know. But Sheila’s grave is said to lie in a cor­ner of the gar­den of the Pike fam­ily home on Pike’s Lane. Visi­tors to Car­bon­ear are en­cour­aged to visit the grave site and pay their re­spects to New­found­land’s own princess, the leg­endary Sheila NaGeira Pike.

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