Why it's time to bring a major Irish artist home


CULTURE SHOCK:Have we sufficiently recovered from the cultural ideology of the 1930s to recognise a great storyteller's magic imagination?, asks Fintan O'Toole 

IN THIS pantomime season, no story will be more roundly abused than that of Cinderella. It has become so hackneyed that it is a shock to encounter it as it might have been told by a genuine artist of the European oral tradition. I came across an astonishingly moving and beautiful version recently. It has all the usual elements: the exploited child of a dead mother, the wicked stepsisters, the handsome prince, the glass slipper. But it is at once more real and more magical.

In this version, the fairy godmother is neither a fairy nor a godmother - she is the girl's own dead mother, transformed into a cat. She is the imaginative projection of every bereaved child - the maternal presence still watching over her. And there is much more to be protected against.

Marriage to the handsome prince is not the culmination of the story. The wicked stepsisters come to the bed where each of the heroine's three children are born in succession, replace them with pups to make her seem monstrous and throw the babies off a cliff. The heroine herself, here called Maureen, eventually meets the same fate. But when she does so, she finds herself on a magical island where she is reunited with her children. All of them eventually return from this land of the dead.

As well as being gripping and deeply moving in its imagery of loss, longing and hope, this version of the story is also immensely sophisticated. For all its immediacy, it is also part of a cosmopolitan European tradition. The return of the "dead" wife and children at the end is similar to the culmination of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. The identity of the lost woman is first revealed to a swineherd, a direct parallel to The Odyssey. This combination of rough vividness, emotional truth and universality make this version of Cinderella a masterpiece of the storyteller's art.

So who's the storyteller? Who is this wonderful creator who, when she causally announces early in the tale that "Magic was plentiful in the country at that time" has you completely convinced? Peig Sayers - yes, indeed, the same boring old crone whose relentless droning on about her endless miseries earned her the hearty detestation of generations of Irish schoolchildren. No major Irish artist - and with this week's 50th anniversary of her death, it is surely time to acknowledge Peig as such - has been so unjustly travestied.

If it seems fanciful to call her an artist, just go back to that telling of the Cinderella story for a moment. The old view of it would be that it is an example of a traditional storyteller passing on an immemorial tradition, making Peig a mere medium for its transmission. But her shaping of this story is clearly personal. The loneliness of the abandoned daughter expresses her own pain at exile from the mainland to the Blaskets.

The sojourn on the island of the dead followed by a triumphal return home echoes her own desires for escape. And a lifelong mourning for the mother she lost in her own childhood is concentrated into a super-charged last line:

"D'imigh an draoícht den gcaitín agus do bhí si ina mathair ag Moirín an chuid eile dá saol." ("The enchantment was lifted from the cat, and she was a mother to Maureen for the rest of her life.") In this, as in hundreds of other stories, Peig did what artists do - constructing a bridge between her own feelings and an inherited tradition. And if you listen to the recordings of her storytelling style that RTÉ has made available on its Libraries and Archives website, you can hear the self-consciousness of her performance, the deep but flowing voice with its mesmerisingly oratorical rhythms. You can begin to understand Peig as both a creator and a performer.

The problem with Peig is that she was the victim of a double travesty. The first was intended to praise her. With the election of the Fianna Fáil government in 1932, its policy of economic autarky was paralleled by a cultural construction of the western islands, especially the Aran Islands and the Blaskets, as mini-Irelands, utopian microcosms of Gaelic purity, unadulterated by foreign influences. The publication of Peig in 1936 came in the wake of Robert Flaherty's film Man of Aran (itself heavily endorsed by de Valera's government) and of the English translation of Tomás Ó Criomhthain's The Islandman, and fitted the same myth of timelessly noble simplicity. The decision to put Peig on the curriculum had obvious ideological intent.

The irony in this could hardly have been greater. Peig hated living on the Blaskets, where she was sent from the mainland as part of an arranged marriage. She hated the sea. Five of her children emigrated to the US with her encouragement - she told her son Muiris that if he stayed he would only be a "cormorant" on "this dreadful rock".

As if this twisting of Peig into an icon of cultural nationalism was not enough, she was then subsequently despised for being that distorted image of herself. Her name was shorthand for all the things that urbanised, post-nationalist Ireland hated about the narrow, self-pitying brand of Irishness that it wished to leave behind. Flann O'Brien's brilliant parody An Béal Bocht replaced Peig as the chosen representation of island life.

Maybe now we've sufficiently recovered from both the cultural ideology of the 1930s and the subsequent reaction against it to look at Peig Sayers for what she is - a remarkable artist.

She may be stuck with her unwanted role as the mother of the misery memoir. But we can recognise, too, the force that her hard life gave to the pleasure she took in language, in the magic of the imagination and in stories that honoured both the bitter realities and the human desire to transcend them.