In praise of Peig Sayers, by Sara Baume

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘Elegant prose it isn’t, but there are few authors with a more authentically Irish voice. Peig Sayers spoke for generations of poor, uneducated Irish women who never had the opportunity to speak for themselves’

Sara Baume: “I didn’t study Peig in school; I was not scarred by its misery at a tender age, which surely puts me in a more objective position than most to argue that Sayers’ account of life on the Great Blasket Island remains relevant and significant.” Photograph:  Department of  Irish Folklore, UCD

Sara Baume: “I didn’t study Peig in school; I was not scarred by its misery at a tender age, which surely puts me in a more objective position than most to argue that Sayers’ account of life on the Great Blasket Island remains relevant and significant.” Photograph: Department of Irish Folklore, UCD

 

PEIG SAYERS (1873-1958)

There are plenty of arguments against the inclusion of Sayers in the canon of great Irish women writers, foremost being the fact that she was illiterate in the language she spoke and instead dictated her famously bleak biography, as well as the hundreds of folk stories she contributed to the Irish Folklore Commission. I didn’t study Peig in school; I was not scarred by its misery at a tender age, which surely puts me in a more objective position than most to argue that Sayers’ account of life on the Great Blasket Island remains relevant and significant. It doesn’t matter to me that she didn’t place her own words down on paper, for this is only one element in the process of writing. Elegant prose it isn’t, but there are few authors with a more authentically Irish voice. Though much of what she described was unrelenting hardship, she was, by all accounts, pragmatic and cheerful in the face of it. Peig Sayers spoke for generations of poor, uneducated Irish women who never had the opportunity to speak for themselves.

Other favourites: Anne Enright and Paula Meehan

“The most of my life I’ve spent on this lonely rock in the middle of the great sea. There’s a great deal of pleasantry and hardship in the life of a person who lives on an island like this that no one knows about except one who has lived here - going to bed at night with little food and rising again at the first chirp of the sparrow, then harrowing away at the world and maybe having no life worth talking about after doing our very best.”

From the 1974 translation of Peig by Bryan MacMahon

Sara Baume’s first novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, is published by Tramp Press. She won the 2014 Davy Byrnes short story prize and was named the Hennessy New Irish Writer 2015 last week.

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