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You may have hated Peig at school, but don’t let that put you off these treasures

Peig Sayers’s collected TV transcripts and interviews are painstakingly preserved records of an Ireland mostly lost

I Will Speak To You All
Author: Peig Sayers, edited by Bo Almqvist and Pádraig O Héalaí
ISBN-13: 9781848408456
Publisher: New Island
Guideline Price: €19.99
Not The Final Word
Author: Peig Sayers, edited by Bo Almqvist and Pádraig O Héalaí
ISBN-13: 9781848408463
Publisher: New Island
Guideline Price: €19.95

Many Irish Times readers will have come across the Blasket Islands seanchaí Peig Sayers before — some, no doubt, against their will. Her first memoir, Peig, was introduced to the school curriculum in the 1960s, and was apparently so despised that her photograph was ripped from the book’s cover, stuck on classroom walls and used for target practice.

But don’t let that put you off. These volumes are a treasure. Both offer a painstakingly preserved record of an Ireland mostly lost now. An Ireland half-pagan, half-Christian, in which people like Peig rarely if ever left the place they were born, and in which the loss of children, to emigration or death, was a regular occurrence. A life, not that long ago, in which the cloth for clothing had to be spun yourself, in which tea (in Peig’s parents’ time), or sugar (during the war), was a rare luxury, and in which one prayed, regularly, that your husband, brother or son would make it back from fishing trips alive.

In other words, sufficient time has now elapsed that the life in Ireland that Peig describes, and the mystical, Celtic-Christian mind that she herself evinces, appear strange enough to be genuinely captivating. There’s the belief in magical happenings and spiritual omens that one would expect, of course (my own nana was a firm believer in ghosts, fairies and banshees), but really it’s the little details in Peig’s accounts that draw the reader in, such as how an “Ulsterwoman” invariably meant a woman with supernatural powers, or how, at Christmas, the table was “scrubbed with sand from the beach and warm water” to be made “bright as a shilling”. Or how, on New Year’s Eve, “The youngest son, or the man of the house, would take the loaf in his hands and go to the door, and strike the loaf against it three times [saying]: “Enter happiness, exit misfortune! We banish famine to / The Turks / — or to Englishmen —, / from tonight till a year from now and ever after.”

The stories, too, are compelling, allthough, for me, this was less to do with their content (which was certainly interesting enough) than with the stark difference in their structure and composition, compared with those we’re most familiar with in the western tradition (and thus in Ireland) today. What came to mind when reading them wasn’t Irish literature now (except for Claire Keegan’s short stories, perhaps) but tales from other folklores, such as the Native American tradition.

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These, like many of Peig’s stories, often start in the middle or at the end. They then might meander back to some sort of a beginning, before stopping, suddenly, with no discernible conclusion, or definitive moral purpose. Maybe, at a push, they could be called quixotic (apparently one of her stories takes its structure from Boccaccio’s Decameron), but there is something continual, something rolling about Peig’s tellings, that reacquaints the reader with the entirely separate oral tradition from whence they came. These are stories plucked at random from one continual whole, ones that expand and contract depending on the particular evening, the teller, or the need. They were malleable enough to incorporate Christianity when it came along, and yet to resonate personally with all those who heard and retold them.

The books themselves are divided into two, the Irish coming first, the English translation second, with images in the centrefold. Around the (admittedly somewhat skimpy) amount of text the transcriptions of Peig’s delivery actually takes up are long introductions and copious notes offered by the hyperenthusiastic editors. (Sadly, Almqvist died in 2013, meaning he wasn’t able to see the second volume through to publication.) The detail provided is unnecessarily precise and intricate for books designed for public consumption, but I got the impression that Ó Héalaí and Almqvist were so completely engrossed by their subject that they simply couldn’t help themselves. This means that, at times, their explanations read a little like those dreaded, heavily annotated, university-style papers found in specialist magazines, or on JSTOR. Yet the highly unfashionable, fuddy-duddy dedication of it all is somehow charming (and, as aforementioned, these would be pretty slim texts without the editorial elucidation, even with the translation).

Besides, if impressed enough to peruse these copious notes, as I was, they too contain little golden nuggets: never before had I connected the linguistic dots, to realise that “a spinning woman is called a spinster”. Nor did I know that it was a common custom among Gaeltacht women to keep their maiden names after marriage. These almost forgotten aspects of Ireland’s history and culture are what make the promotion and understanding of traditional storytellers like Peig Sayers not only curious but essential.