Ireland is a land of storytellers; maybe it’s the rain, perhaps it’s the long winters or our long culture of oral tales. Or maybe it’s our social nature – head down to the pub, and you’ll surely find a local storyteller spinning a yarn.
In any case, Ireland has produced more than its fair share of writers. Some places though have a disproportionate number of storytellers, even for Ireland.
One such place is the Blasket Islands of Dingle. Perhaps the best-known writer to emerge from this cloistered island community is Peig Sayers.
“Cad é an mhaith dom eagla a bheith orm? Ní shaorfadh eagla duine ón mbás.”
What good have I to fear? Fear will not free one from death.
Máiréad “Peig” Sayers was a native of the thimble-sized village of Dunquin on the edge of the Dingle Peninsula. A native speaker of the Irish language, she was a seanchaí – a brilliant traditional Gaelic storyteller – a gift she inherited from her father. Peig came from a poor family and dreamed of migrating to America, following in the footsteps of her best friend, Cáit. Unfortunately, Cáit never managed to send the funds for Peig to travel, and her dreams of migration were through.
One evening, when Peig was just a teenager living with her family in Dunquin, there was a knock on the door; a few men had come to see her father. One of them was Pádraig Ó Gaoithín. The men came in, produced a bottle of whiskey, and settled in for the evening. Peig sensed that she would be married off that night, and she was right; another of the men was a local matchmaker.
At the end of the night, her father asked her if she would marry, Pádraig, a man from Great Blasket Island. If Peig married a man from the mainland, her family would need to produce a dowry, which they didn’t have. However, if she married a man from the islands, no dowry was required, as the islands needed women. Thus she accepted the proposal and was married within a matter of months. Peig moved from her childhood home to the remote Great Blasket Island off the coast of the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry.
Life was tough on the island, and there was pressure on newlyweds – a baby was expected to be produced within a year of marriage. Thus young Peig quickly began her journey of motherhood in the harsh conditions of the Blaskets, bearing 11 children in total. Unfortunately, only six of her children survived, and her life was mired in grief.
Despite island hardships, Peig found her joie de vie as a great entertainer and the life and soul of the party. Her home on the Blasket Islands became the focal point of many an evening’s entertainment – filled with laughter, song, music and storytelling, bringing light, life and laughter to a wild and rugged remote island off the southwest coast. Passionate about the Irish language and culture, and maintaining Ireland’s unique heritage, Peig imbibed hundreds of myths, legends and folk stories, spinning oral tales and reciting folk tales in Irish following the seanchaí tradition. Today, she is renowned as one of Ireland’s most beloved storytellers.
The Blasket Islands are an archipelago of six islands, though only Great Blasket sustained any significant population. Though a maximum of about 150 people ever called the Blasket Islands home at any one time, they produced many writers, storytellers and biographers in proportion to their small size. Other notable literary souls from the Blaskets include Tomás O’Criomhthain, anglicised as Thomas O’Crohan, who penned The Islandman, and Murais O Suilleabhain, anglicised as Maurice O’Sullivan, whose island memoir was Twenty Years a-Growing. English poet, scholar and Irish language translator Robin Flower – nicknamed Bláithín, or ‘Little Flower’, today a popular girl’s name – also spent significant time on the Blaskets, with island life inspiring several poems.
Read more about the Blaskets’ literary heritage here.
On the request of Dublin teacher Máire Ní Chinnéide, Peig dictated her autobiography, Peig, to her son Micheál to transcribe it and Máire to edit it for publications. Many scholars argue that much of Peig’s joyful, entertaining spirit and dramatic prose was lost in the editing process. It’s certainly true that the book is recognised as a challenging read – a dense Irish text detailing a difficult life in a remote location. Reputedly, Peig was an excellent performer and oral storyteller, harbouring a wonderful sense of humour – lost in translation in the written format of her book.
Compulsory on the Irish school curriculum from 1962 – 1995, a teenage audience didn’t receive Peig’s autobiography well. Mention the name “Peig” to Irish adults, and you will often receive mixed emotions as people remember their school years! Today, the book is recommended for more mature readers and celebrated for its depth, high standard of Irish and dramatic style.
Peig’s legacy endures, and she offers us a unique, insightful account of life on the Dingle Peninsula and the Great Blasket Island in the early 1900s. Peig was a visionary in terms of realising the importance of recording Irish stories, traditions and of her own unique life for generations to come.
Her vast appreciation of her culture and language has left us with a wealth of knowledge. She dictated hundreds of stories, legends and folklore to the Irish Folklore Commission, vastly enriching their library of knowledge. Her colourful celebrations and sense of camaraderie significantly strengthened the tight-knit community on Great Blasket Island. She is celebrated in the fabulous Great Blasket Island Visitor Centre, along the Slea Head drive, near Peig’s homeplace in Dunquin.
Want to visit the Dingle Peninsula? Hike the Dingle Way to fully appreciate this beautiful part of Kerry and Ireland’s southwest.
If you want to discover the islands on which Peig Sayers so inspired Peig and the other storytellers of the Blaskets, join our island-hopping tour of Cork and Kerry.