Peig Sayers was long the bane of Irish secondary-school students, but now, on the 50th anniversary of her death, the great Blasket Island storyteller is undergoing something of a reappraisal, writes Catherine Foley
PEIG SAYERS, the great storyteller who died 50 years ago on Monday, and who was the scourge and torment of Leaving Cert students for decades, is undergoing a makeover. The Blasket Islander is to be re-introduced to the public through a series of lectures and broadcasts throughout the next week.
A new online archive exhibition has been launched on RTÉ's website using rare recordings of Peig made by Séamus Ennis and Seán Mac Reamoinn in 1947. It presents a fresher, earthier version of Peig, where her sense of fun and warmth come to the fore. "It's a rehabilitation of Peig," says Malachy Moran, RTÉ Radio's manager of audio services and archives.
Peig was the headline act on the Irish curriculum throughout the 1960s and 1970s, until she became the butt of jokes and a figure of ridicule. The version of Peig depicted in her autobiography, Peig,was enough to induce despair and anguish in the hearts of many Leaving Cert students. The opening doleful lines of her 1936 book, as dictated to her son, Maidhc, read: "I'm an old woman now with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge . . . Had I known in advance half, or even one-third of what the future had in store for me, my heart wouldn't have been as gay or as courageous as it was in the beginning of my days."
Today there are fewer than 50 schools studying her autobiography, compared to the days when Peigwas compulsory on the Irish curriculum, according to Robbie Cronin, an Irish-language teacher of 25 years and the ASTI's Irish-language subject convenor. Peig was demoted to an optional autobiography on the syllabus in the mid-1990s. Cronin, who used to teach Peig, says that after 20 minutes you could see the students' eyes glaze over. "They did hate it. Even the better students hated her, which was the pity because what a story. She had everything that Dev would have loved in a woman."
Prof Angela Bourke of UCD, who will give a lecture as part of the 50-year commemoration of the death of Peig at the Blasket Heritage Centre in Dún Chaoin tomorrow, says Peig was the perfect model for women everywhere when her book came out. "She was the sorrowing mother mourning her own son."
Peig tells stories full of anger, negativity and profanity, though only those that suited the tastes of what was a repressive time were printed, says Bourke. However, all the recorded stories show that Peig was, she says, "a very strong, very vivid personality".
Bourke thinks "there's a great disservice done to her memory because she's been on school courses and she's mostly associated with sitting on the hard old bench at school and having to study something. When I have talked to American students who don't have any of the cultural baggage that comes with growing up in Ireland, they have found her absolutely fascinating. She's a person of real-life experience and she was a very talented storyteller. And as an adult reader you can get behind the packaging in which she is presented and see more of her personality."
BOURKE SAYS THAT with the tough economic times we are going through there is an interest in how people managed hardship in the past. "People managed to laugh, they managed to entertain themselves, they managed to cope with a lot of the stuff that life threw at them through a lot of strategies that were handed down in stories to a huge extent."
Film-maker Breandán Feiritéar, whose restored 1998 television documentary, Voice of Generations: The Story of Peig Sayers, will be screened tomorrow night on RTÉ1, is anxious to explain the focus in Peig on tales of woe.
"The good stories weren't told, but those were hard times anyway . . . It was just the way the book was directed with the poor mouth and all the bad things that happened to her, her sons dying and people going away to America." Peig Sayers "is much greater than her book", he says. He believes that people will look at her in a new way when all the stories that were taken down from her are published. "They were supposed to be published 10 years ago when I did the film on her. She'll be valued in a different light when they are all seen."
Born in the same place as Peig, Feiritéar recalls seeing her lying in bed in the corner of her house with a bandage across her eye when they called on the Wren Day, Lá an Dreoilín. "She asked her son to get us something - he got us a slice of bread and jam. I also remember her in hospital . . . She was a beautiful woman. She had the gift of being able to talk to everyone. She was a public performer."
According to broadcaster Cathal Poirtéir, whose radio documentary, Peig: Reflections on an Old Woman,goes out on RTÉ Radio 1 tomorrow night, there is a consensus among the academics and specialists who spoke to him that Peig has been harshly judged by facile expressions of classroom boredom, and that people didn't actually look to see what was in the text itself or what Peig did. "Her real importance isn't the book, Peig, but . . . the fact that she was an exceptional storyteller in world terms." Refuting the notion that Peig was a monoglot, Ríleanna agus Téipeannaon RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta will feature archive material over the next two Sundays, including audio from the BBC in which she speaks English.
Another wellspring from Peig's recorded output is the huge archive of audio in UCD's folklore department. Transcripts of these have never been published, according to Bo Almquist, UCD's professor emeritus of folklore but it is hoped to publish the first volume of these shortly. "She had a tremendous capacity for joy and she had very many friends of all ages," says Almquist. Listeners to her recordings will hear her "sense of humour and her sense of fun and the touching care she had for everything", he says. "They are marvellous recordings. Above all she was a master of detail. She can make you feel that you are in the story. You could see it in front of you."
• A day-long commemoration in Dunquin, Co Kerry, of the 50th anniversary of the death of Peig begins with mass in the local church at 11am tomorrow
• Ríleanna agus Téipeanna,presented by Ian Lee, will be broadcast on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta tomorrow and on December 14th at 10am
• Voice of Generations: The Story of Peig Sayers, a film by Breandán Feiritéar, will be screened on RTÉ 1 tomorrow at 11.50pm
• Peig - Reflections on an Old Woman, produced by Cathal Poirtéir, will be broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 tomorrow at 7pm
• The online archive exhibition is at www.rte.ie/laweb
The Story Continues: Memories of Peig
Hugh Tinney, pianist:I remember Peig in that I would have studied it fairly thoroughly in the 1970s at school. I had mixed feelings about it. It was very vivid but it was also very dark and there was sadness there with the fishing people and the presence of death. That is what dominates my memory of it.
I don't remember much detail about the rest of Peig, describing her life. I remember the overall hard life as told with a certain amount of warmth by Peig. When I think of her, I suppose I think of a lady wrapped in a shawl with a bun and greyish hair at a time when she wasn't so young.
Eileen Dunne, RTÉ newscaster:She's part of what we are. We all gave out about her when we had to do it at the time but I do think every child should do it at school. I only came to appreciate her scéal later because I'm married to Macdara [Ó Fatharta] who is from the Aran Islands . . . the Aran Islanders were able to stay and the Blasket people had to leave. I read Cole Moreton's book . . . about all the people leaving the Blaskets [Hungry for Home: Leaving the Blaskets]. Like every young one I didn't appreciate the story at the time but would more now. At school we probably felt she was whingeing and moaning, but there's plenty of that going on now.
John Lonergan, governor of Mountjoy Prison:[Peig] spoke about the drudgery and the tough living . . . Over the last 15 to 20 years as a society, we have tried to distance ourselves [from that] and erase that memory. We are almost in denial. But Peig was one of thousands of people who lived a tough life . . . She gave us a great understanding of what real poverty was and the consequences of it. The control that the Catholic Church had in her time was also immense. It had huge influence and control over people and they did live by the demands of the church. In cases of people in poverty the burden of that was huge.
Peig: Life in Letters
Peig Sayers was born in 1873 and grew up in Dunquin in Co Kerry. She left school at 14. In 1892, she married Pádraig Ó Gaoithín from the Great Blasket Island and lived there until 1953.
She gave birth to 10 children - three died in infancy, another girl died of measles at the age of 18, four emigrated to the US and her son Tomás died when he fell down a cliff. Only her son, Maidhc, stayed at home.
She dictated her autobiography, Peig, to Maidhc. It was published in 1936. The first English version of Peig was published in 1973. Machnamh Sean-Mhná(1939) contains further recollections. A further 360 stories, which were recorded for the Irish Folklore Commission by Seosamh Ó Dálaigh, remain unpublished.