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.