Peig Sayers (1873-1958)


Life
b. March, Vicarstown, Dún Chaoin [Dunquin], Co. Kerry; one of four of a family of thirteen children surviving childhood; servant girl in house of Dingle shopkeeper, treated kindly; returned home for health; disappointed in hopes of emigration to US when her friend Cáít Jim Boland reneged on promise to send home fare; harshly treated in another Dingle house; match-married Pádraig Ó Guíthín [var. Ó Gaoithín] of Great Blasket Island, and produced ten children, seven surviving infancy; lived there forty years until evacuated with the other islanders in 1941 [var. 1953];
 
her sole companion in later years was her blind brother-in-law; possessed a store of folklore incl. 375 wonder-tales which were recorded by Seosamh Ó Dalaigh [Joe Daly] [of the Folklore Commission; she dictated her autobiography to her son Michéal, later ed. by Máire ní Chinnéide as Peig (1936) and trans. Bryan MacMahon (1974); also Machtnamh Seana-mhná (1939), trans. by Seán Ennis as An Old Woman’s Reflections (1962); a further instalment of autobiography, likewise dictated, was published as Beatha Pheig Sayers (1970);
 
she was interviewed at St. Elizabeth's Hospital by W. R. Rodgers,for BBC, Aug. 1947, providing material for his broadcast The Irish Storyteller: A Picture of a Vanishing Gaelic World (BBC, 13 June 1943); afterwards recorded by Séamus Ennis, Sean Mac Réamoinn and Ó Dalaigh for RTE at home over two days in November of that year, having recently returned from her sojourn in the Dingle hospital, culminating with the piece Óráid Pheig - delivered as a death-bed statement;
 
again recorded by Mac Réamoinn on his visit to Dun Choain to make a programme about the evacuation of Great Blasket; she had an active vocabulary of Gaelic 30,000 words; some 375 stories were recorded from her in different media; d. 8 Dec. 1958. DIW DIB DIH OCIL

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Works
as Gaeilge
  • Peig, ed. Máire ní Chinnéide (Dublin: Talbot 1936);
  • Scéalta ón mBlascaod, ed. Kenneth Jackson (Dublin: Oifig an tSoláthair 1938);
  • Machtnamh Sheana-mhná, ed. Máire ní Chinnéide (Dublin: Oifig an tSoláthair 1939);
  • Beatha Pheig Sayers, ed., Mícheál Ó Gaoithín (Dublin: Foilseacháin Náisiúnta Tta. 1970) [edited by her son];
  • Peig Sayers Scéalaí 1873-1958, ed., Máire Ní Chéilleachair (BAC: Coiscéim 1999).
 

See also stories collected by Robin Flower and Kenneth Jackson in Béaloídeas; 160 tales collected for Irish Folklore Commission by Seosamh Ó Dálaigh, unpublished; and note a further c.100 stories collected by Bo Almqvist (UCD) from Mícheál Ó Gaoithín. (Flower, The Western Island or The Great Blasket, 1945.)

 
Translations
  • Séamus Ennis [trans.], An Old Woman’s Reflections [Machtnamh Seana-Mhná], introduced by W. R. Rodgers (London: OUP 1962; rep. 1993);
  • Bryan MacMahon [trans.], Peig: The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island (Dublin: Talbot 1974);
  • Labharfad le Cách / I Will Speak To You All: Peig Sayers, ed. Bo Almqvist & Pádraig Ó Héalaí (Dublin: New Island Press 2010), 312pp. [with audio-recordings].

See also Memoirs of the Great Blasket Island, 3 vols. [viz., The Islandman, by Ó Criomhthain/O'Crohan [1934 trans. of An tOileánach, 1929; The Western Island, or, The Great Blasket, by Robin Flower, 1944; An Old Woman’s Reflections, by Peig Sayer, 1962 trans. of Machtnamh seana-mhná, 1939] (Oxford: OUP [1981]), ill [maps, ports.], 21cm. [in slip case]. Note: Series consists of 7 Blasket Island books; title from container.
Tim Enright, trans., Mícheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does Not Last (OUP q.d.) [160pp., ill.]

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Criticism
  • Seán Ó Súilleabháin, ‘Peig Sayers’, in Éire-Ireland, 5, 1 (Spring 1970), pp.86-91;
  • Bryan MacMahon, ‘Peig Sayers and the Vernacular of the Story Teller’, in Literature and Folk Culture - Ireland and Newfoundland [9th Annual Seminar of CAIS, 11-15 Feb. 1976], ed. Alison Feder & Bernice Schrank [Folklore and Language Archive, 2] (Memorial University of Newfoundland 1977) [x, 183pp.], pp.83-109;
  • Mairin Nic Eoin, review of Labharfad le Cách / I Will Speak To You All: Peig Sayers, in The Irish Times (23 Jan. 2010), Weekend Review, p.13.
See also Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives in Irish History (Dublin: O’Brien Press 2001).
 
TV documentaries
  • Breandan Feiritéir, Slán an Scéalaí: Scéal Pheig Sayers (RTE/G4 1998) [documentary].
See also Cathal Póirtéir, Blasket Island Reflections [series] (RTÉ 2003).

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Commentary
Robin Flower, remarking that her words ‘could be written down as they leave her lips and would have the effect of literature, with no savour of the artificiality of composition’ (cited in Eddie Holt, TV Review, Irish Times, 12 Dec. 1998, Weekend, p.7; in connection with Breandán Feirritéar’s The Voices of the Generations - the Story of Peig Sayers, transmitted 8th Dec. 1998.)

Conor McCarthy, Modernisation: Crisis and Culture in Ireland 1969-1992 (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2000), writes in any explanatory footnote: ‘The turgid Irish Gaelic memoir of Blasket Islander Peig Sayers, published in 1936; a central and much-resented text on the secondary school curriculum in Irish.’ (ftn., p.135.)

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Quotations
An Old Woman’s Reflections (Oxford 1987): ‘The great sea was coming on top of us and the strong wind helping it. We had but to send our prayer sincerely to God that nobody would be taken sick or ill. We had our own charge of that because there wasn’t a priest or doctor near us without going across the little strait and the little strait was up to three miles in length. But God was in favour with us, eternal praise to Him. For with[in] my memory nobody died without the priest in winter-time’. (p.198; quoted in Breda Dunne, An Intelligent Visitor’s Guide to the Irish, Mercier 1990, q.p.).

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American wake: ‘It’s a sad occasion when a person leaves for America; it’s like death, for only one out of a thousand ever again return to Ireland.’ (Quoted in Fintan O’Toole, ‘An Island Lightly Moored’, Irish Times, 29 March 1997; extract from The Ex-Isle of Erin: Images of a Global Ireland, New Island 1997.)

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Strong farmers: ‘[N]ach shin é a thug na feirmeacha móra do dhaoine mar éinne go mbíodh an tógaint cinn aige aon phingin airgid thiocfdadh fear des na comharsain chuige again thabharfadh sé dó a chiud talún ar chostas Mheiricéa [is not that how the people got the big farms around here, since all those who had any standing left would find nighbours willing to trade their land in return for passages to America]’ (Quoted in Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘New Perspectives on the Irish Famine’, in Bullán: Irish Studies Journal, 1997/1998, p.104.)

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References
Doherty and Hickey, A Chronology of Irish History Since 1500 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1989); cites Mardhc Sayers, her son, as ed. of Beatha Peig Sayers.

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Notes
Hearsay: Kerry hearsay has it that two of Peig Sayers children reputedly formed an incestuous relationship and departed for America where they lived as man and wife.

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