Colette Sheridan: It’s easy to mock Peig, but she was a woman of substance

Peig Sayers bored the arse off us at school, but she's worth remembering, says Colette Sheridan
Colette Sheridan: It’s easy to mock Peig, but she was a woman of substance

Peig Sayers: there was more to the master storyteller than your Leaving Cert had you believe.

DON’T mind St Patrick. What did he ever do for us, except allegedly banish snakes from our isle and bring us Christianity?

The religion thing has been questioned, with evidence of an earlier Christian presence in Ireland. Really, his legacy has traditionally been drunkenness on the streets and kitsch parades with goose-pimpled cheerleaders swinging their batons in the cold.

But take Peig, who has single name recognition in this country as a result of her eponymously titled autobiography being on the secondary school curriculum until 1995. Now there’s an interesting woman.

If you’re old enough to have studied Peig for the Leaving Certificate, you’re possibly gagging at the idea that this Co Kerry-born author and seanchaí is worth remembering.

Because, let’s face it, Peig Sayers (1873-1958) bored the arse off us at school. Or at least, most of us.

A friend, who has a more refined sensibility and openness to Irish culture, thinks Peig’s book is fascinating. And when you think of it, it must be an interesting book. It’s a snapshot of rural Ireland at a time when marriages, including Peig’s, were arranged and America beckoned for young hopefuls who wanted or had to get away from the old sod.

ACCOMPLISHED STORYTELLER: Peig Sayers pictured in around 1930. She has been described as “the Netflix of the time”
ACCOMPLISHED STORYTELLER: Peig Sayers pictured in around 1930. She has been described as “the Netflix of the time”

Peig was taken out of school at the age of 12 and went to work for a Dingle family for a couple of years before returning home to Dunquin due to illness. She later moved to the Great Blasket Island after marrying a native of the island who was a fisherman. They had 11 children, of whom six survived.

That outline of Peig’s life should be enough to pique our interest. But unfortunately, at school, the teaching of Peig’s book was more about translating it into English than looking at it in the context of the era in which it is set.

Not to mention the grim reality for young girls who often had to go into ‘service’, as poorly rewarded servants, and were expected to marry whoever they were matched with. It’s the stuff of John B Keane.

But Peig, an accomplished storyteller who was visited and recorded by scholars from abroad, was written off by the rest of us as a misery boots with her tales of drownings and hardship.

Her book, the bane of school-goers’ lives for so many years, was probably the most famous expression of a late Gaelic revival genre of personal histories by and about the inhabitants of the Blasket Islands and other remote locations.

The movement was mocked by the so-called cosmopolitan intellectual bourgeois of Ireland for its portrayals of rural hardship. You had the likes of Flann O’Brien’s hilarious novel, An Beal Bocht (the poor mouth.)

However, Peig is becoming trendy (again?) with Gaelgoirs and artists while a new book on her legacy, Níl Deireadh Ráite (not the last word) is doing well.

Peg was the subject of a TG4 documentary last week in which “a flirtatious and bawdy nature reveals itself” according to the TV channel.

On International Women’s Day last week, I tuned into a webinar about Peig in Washington, whose contributors included Daniel Mulhall, the ambassador of Ireland in the U.S. Also there was Professor Emerita of UCC’s School of English, Patricia Coughlan. 

She spoke of the “sheer skill” of Peig’s storytelling and even went so far as to suggest that the autobiography is comparable to Joyce’s Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. (Now there’s high praise!).

Patricia also said that the teaching of Peig with the representation of her as a sainted Mother Mary is an unfair caricature. She said that urban kids disparaged her as they didn’t understand the kind of life Peig led. But, in her storytelling, a rich Irish emotional life is depicted.

Peig was illiterate in the Irish language (which is ironic) having received her early schooling through English. She dictated her auto-biography to her son, Micheál, who then sent the manuscript to a Dublin teacher who edited it. The book was published in 1936.

Peig went on to dictate 350 ancient legends, ghost stories, folk and religious tales to a member of the Irish Folklore Commission. There are 5,000 pages of transcript in Peig’s archive. 

She was like a latter day podcaster or blogger. In the documentary, Peig was described as “the Netflix of the time”.

She told the story of a farmer who was so angry at losing his three sons that he planned to kill himself. Where could a story like that go? As Peig told it, the farmer ended up happy.

A stranger gave the bereaved father a vision of what would have happened had the sons lived. They would all have been executed for crimes. The father was spared the shame.

It’s an interesting take on a tragic situation. Perhaps our shame is writing off Peig, an accomplished storyteller...

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