Peig Sayers

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Peig Sayers ended up becoming one of the most famous storytellers in Europe in a language she wouldn’t originally have spoken.

An Article with excerpts from Paul Craven:

PEIG SAYERS was born in Vicarstown, Dunquin, County Kerry in early 1873. She was baptised on the 29th of March of that year. 

Her parents, Tomas Sayers and his wife Peig Ni Bhrosnachain, were survivors of the Great Famine a quarter of a century before. 

The Sayers family were Protestant Cromwellian landed gentry whose descendent ended up being one of the most famous storytellers in Europe in a language they wouldn’t originally have spoken.

She was literate in English but illiterate, in the “pen and paper” sense in Irish. She was admired and adored and she could be simultaneously funny, irreverent, and pious.

Of the thirteen children born to her parents, nine died in infancy, and Peig was the youngest of the four children who lived into adulthood.

From about the age of six, she attended Dunquin National School, which she left at an early age to go into domestic service with a shopkeeper’s family in Dingle. 

After four happy years, ill-health forced her to return to her own family. After she recovered her health, she entered domestic service with another family. 

But her new mistress, who was harsh on Peig, caused her to be unhappy, and, so she returned home for a second time. 

Then, in 1892, when aged nineteen her family made a “match” for her with a thirty year old farmer and fisherman named Padraig 0 Gaoithin, (nicknamed “Pat’s Flint”). 

She met her husband-to-be only once before she married him in Dunquin Church on the 13th of February, 1892. 

She then left the Mainland and went to live with her husband’s family on the Great Blasket Island, where she remained for the next fifty years. 

The Islanders immediately nicknamed the tall newcomer to their Island, “Peig Mhor” (or “Big Peig”). 

Life on The Blasket Island was hard: Peig’s daily chores included collecting turf and firewood, cooking (mainly fish and potatoes), baking bread churning milk, fetching water, washing, spinning, knitting and mending clothes. 

But, on the other hand, her marriage was a happy one. She bore ten children, of whom three died in infancy, one died as an adult, and five emigrated to America. 

Then, in 1920 her husband died. But, in spite of these setbacks, Peig continued to enjoy Island life. 

At the turn of the last century, newspapers were scarce, books were even scarcer, and television and wireless sets had not even been invented. 

In the remote, windswept Great Blasket Island lying in the Atlantic Ocean off the south-west coast of county Kerry , entertainment continued to be community based for as long as the island remained inhabited. For entertainment, people met in each other’s houses and exchanged news, and, more importantly, told stories. 

The custom of house visiting provided a structure for night-time entertainment of which storytelling was a part. This was the context in which Peig Sayers narrated tales while she lived on the Island, and afterwards in Baile Bhiocáire, Dunquin, after her return to the mainland in 1942. 

The storytelling occasions when Peig, seated in front of the fire, in her home in Baile Bhiocáire, entranced her audience, and, in this regard, Peig Sayers quickly earned a well deserved reputation as a “Seanchai”, or storyteller. 

She had an extraordinary memory and, after hearing a story only once, could repeat it accurately, even if it took several days to re-tell it from start to finish.

She had an excellent command of her native Irish language, as well as a remarkable ability for a beautiful turn of phrase. 

No aspect of island life was absent from her memory – folk tales, legends, local history, proverbs (or old sayings), folk practices, traditional beliefs and superstitions, as well as ancient prayers, blessings and curses. 

Her stories covered all aspects of the art of storytelling, such as comedy, mystery and tragedy.

Then, in the early years of the last century, there was a phenomenon known as the “Gaelic Revival”, urged on by the Gaeli4. League, the GAA and Smu Feint Irish people tried to re-establish their pride in all things Irish. 

Visitors and scholars travelled to the Irish speaking areas of the country (or Gaeltachtai) to learn Irish, and when they came to the Blasket Islands, their attention was directed to “Peig Mhor”. 

She welcomed them into her home, and regaled them with stories, just as he had regaled her neighbours and friends. For the first time countless aspects of oral tradition were taken down in writing and published, mostly in learned journals and magazines. 

Later, they were published in book form, entitled “Scealta 0’ mBlaseaod”(or “Stories from the Blasket”)

This encouraged Peig to commit more material to writing. Her son, Michael, nicknamed “Maidh~ File” (or “Mike the Poet”), returned from America, and, at her dictation wrote “Peig” her autobiography or life story (Curiously, in spite of her command of Irish, Peig could neither read nor write Irish!) 

“Peig” was published in 1936, and in 1937 was awarded the prestigious Douglas Hyde Prize. (This was called after Douglas Hyde, the Founder of the Gaelic League, and first President of Ireland.) 

Soon afterwards, “Peig” was prescribed as a set school text for study in Irish schools. Another book, also dictated by Peig, “Machnamh Sean-mhna” (or “An old Woman’s Reflections”), was published in 1939. 

Then for good measure, a collector from the Government’s Irish Folklore Commissioti collected no less than 375 stories and 40 songs from Peig. 

Later, in 1942 after living on the Blasket Island for half a century she returned to Vicarstown, where she had been born, to live with her son. 

Then, her health declined and nearly blind she died in Dingle Hospital, on the 8th of December, 1958, after which she was buried in Dunquin Cemetery. 

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