REVIEW: TG4’s PEIG
“THAT bitch ruined my life,” declared a wanna-be-noticed fifty-something visitor to the Dún Chaoin Blasket Visitor Centre as he stared at the iconic picture of the Irish author whose autobiography was studied by every Irish Leaving Cert student over a period of some two decades. Later in the programme, Irish playwright Caitríona Ni Mhurchú – who, incidentally, had been told to “phuck off back to Poland” when overheard speaking Irish to a friend on a Dublin Bus – commented that such corkscrews of cynicism should get over it and find another crutch to hang grievances on. Pythagoras or Euclid maybe??? No… they didn’t speak as Gaeilge!
Peig was always a tough sell and was probably murdered by a host of teachers who treated the novel as no more than an upcycled primer for the Irish language to a generation of students. Nevertheless, Peig was an authentic tale told by a woman, and from a woman’s perspective, of a medieval world that still existed on the Great Blasket in the twentieth century. Peig’s testimony as a woman living an exceptional life in an exceptionally harsh environment has never gained the recognition it deserved due to its more-or-less compulsory place on the curriculum. The Blasket author never intended her book to be a text on the Leaving Cert Irish course and should never be blamed for the criticism that was levelled at her because of this.
‘The young Peig, for example, who went to work as a servant for the Curran family in Dingle was very attractive – wild, vivacious and flighty according to locals who knew her’
Ironically, Peig Sayers was literate only in English and her depiction as a conservative and prayerful Catholic (her best friend on the island was a Protestant) was largely due to her deeply conservative son Maidhc File to whom she dictated her story. In fact, Peig’s recollections had two edits. Maidhc File’s edited manuscripts of Peig’s life was then sent to Máire Ní Chinnéide in Dublin, who also edited them, for publication in 1936. In fact, Peig the novel is in many ways more interesting for what’s left unsaid. The young Peig, for example, who went to work as a servant for the Curran family in Dingle was very attractive – wild, vivacious and flighty according to locals who knew her.
The arranged match into the Great Blasket with fisherman Pádraig Ó Guithín in February 1892 was never acknowledged in the novel as the massive social comedown it was. Peig’s grim world in a grassy-banked tiny cottage on the Great Blasket saw the birth of 11 children of whom five died. One child fell from a cliff into the Atlantic and must have been ripped to pieces before he hit the water – despite Maidhc File’s romanticised version of the fall. The book reports that Peig’s husband died from a chill he got out night-fishing. In reality, it was TB that did for him. Five of the six remaining children emigrated to Springfield, Massachusetts and never returned. Peig herself was devastated when her turn to emigrate as a young girl fell by the wayside when her best friend was injured in a sweat-box garment factory and couldn’t send on the fare.
Life just didn’t come any tougher than on the Blaskets and the islanders were treated with fear and suspicion by the mainlanders. There was no church, no priest, no doctor and the island was inaccessible for more than half the year. When I attempted to visit the island in 1970, we couldn’t land although it was mid-summer. Such was life on the Blasket. When the school finally closed in 1952, life became impossible. The 1953 evacuation, ordered by then-Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, was largely accepted as a necessity. The Blasket Islanders – by then a population of only 22 – were cut off from communication or any emergency assistance from the mainland and facing increasingly extreme weather patterns. At its peak, Great Blasket Island numbered some 175 residents and its cultural output was immense. Tomás Ó Criomhthainn’s ‘An tOileánach’ is its finest work and has been translated into many languages, as has Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s ‘Fiche Bliain ag Fás’. One of the privileges of my life was the friendship I made with Tomás’s son Seán who wrote ‘L’á D’ár Saol’ – an account of his life as a child-islander who evacuated the Great Blasket back in 1953 and who was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident in Baile na nGall, 50 miles west of Dingle in 1972.
Peig Sayers was one of the great seanchaí and got the storytelling tradition from her father Tomás and the islanders crowded into her tiny home to listen in wonder to a woman who was a living repository of Irish folklore – the Netflix of her times. Over several years from 1938, Peig dictated 350 ancient legends, ghost stories, folk stories, and religious stories to Seosamh Ó Dálaigh from the Irish Folklore Commission. International folklorists brought Peig to international academic attention. She continued to live on the island until 1942 before returning to her native Dún Chaoin. She died in Dingle Hospital in 1958 and is buried in Dún Chaoin graveyard.
TG4’s Sinéad Ní Uallacháin’s programme ‘PEIG’ is a gem and a retrospective of this great seanchaí’s work is long overdue. A loving and open conversation between Sinéad and the dead Peig in the graveyard is deeply moving and reminds me that I once made that same visit and had that same conversation. “Tá daoine fós ag faire amach duit, a Pheig,” adúirt Sinéad.
Peig’s story is unique and her testimony as a woman should be celebrated for what it is.