Reconsidering Peig“All you have to say is Peig and people know who you’re talking about.”

As heard on The Ryan Tubridy Show

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Seanabhean is ea mise anois go bhfuil cos léi insan uaigh is an chos eile ar a bruach.” There’s a sizeable portion of the population of Ireland who will read those words and shudder, such is the cultural reach of the book from which they come and the woman who uttered them. So it’s probably no surprise that when broadcaster Sinéad Ní Uallacháin referenced that book with its pink cover, Ryan Tubridy told her she was triggering him. This is the power of Peig. Born in Dún Chaoin, Co Kerry in 1873 and still making radio presenters twitch nearly 150 years later. But Peig wasn’t just an old woman with one foot in the grave and the other on the edge, she was also, Sinéad says, a performer. 

I think of Beyoncé. You only have to say Beyoncé to know who someone’s talking about. Somebody else mentioned this in the programme as well, they said, ‘All you have to say is Bono.’ All you have to say is Peig and people know who you’re talking about.” 

Sinéad has a new documentary on TG4 that takes a fresh look at the woman whose Blasket Island life story haunted the lives of Leaving Cert students from 1962 to 1999. But is the re-evaluation of Peig warranted? Or, as Ryan put it, when telling us that Sinéad has made a documentary looking at Ms Sayers’s life – why? Sinéad is too young to have had to study Peig for her Ardteist, but she grew up in West Kerry, not too far from Dún Chaoin and even worked in the Blasket Islands Heritage Centre there. 

I was just a little bit, I suppose, embarrassed because I always heard about Peig Sayers and I knew about Peig Sayers, but I didn’t really know that much about her at the same time. I had never read the book. I knew that she was a storyteller, I knew that she had a hard life, I knew that she got a lot of, I suppose, stick from people who had read the book and who had studied the book. But I wanted to take, I suppose, a personal journey and to understand who Peig was.” 

What was contained in the book that tormented students for so long was only a part of Peig’s life, Sinéad told Ryan. Peig was a collector of stories, as well as a storyteller. She told her own story to her son, Maidhc File, who wrote it down and it was then edited by Máire Ní Chinnéide to become the book that we all know and don’t love. But the amount of people involved in Peig’s story could well have affected the tale that ended up being published, claims Sinéad: 

“It’s kind of a little bit like Chinese whispers, I think, you know? She told her story to her son. They say her son was quite religious as well, so I wonder did Maidhc File take note of everything?” 

Many’s the Leaving Cert student who would complain about Peig’s story because it contained  if memory serves – depictions of almost unrelenting hardship, the sort of life story that would inspire Myles Na gCopaleen to write An Béal Bocht, his glorious send-up of Gaeltacht misery memoirs. But Peig’s life was hard, Sinéad insists. That was her life and all she did was tell it. And, as Máire Ní Dhálaigh of the Blasket Centre puts it, “Peig was the Netflix of her time”. Wait, what does that mean? Well, in the absence of television or radio, people would gather in Peig’s house to hear her tell stories. 

“She was a wonderful storyteller. I had the opportunity to go up to Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann and to actually listen to some of the tapes of her reciting and, oh man, she understood her brief. She told the story, there was a rhythm to it. There was not an um nor an am to it. It was like a performance.” 

She was the Netflix of her time, the Beyoncé and Bono of her time – maybe we’ve been wrong about that pipe-smoking, shawl-wearing icon all this time? You can hear all of Ryan’s chat with Sinéad by going here. 

Peig will be broadcast on TG4 on Wednesday 10 March at 9.30pm. 

Niall Ó Sioradáin 

© The Listener 2021

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