March 11, 2009
Peig Mhór, Saol Mhór: Biography of Peig Sayers
Peig Sayers was a legend in her own time. She was often visited by students of universities and scholars wishing to record a portion of her vast collection of folklore knowledge. A natural performer, “Salt of the Earth” woman, and an oral enchantress, she quickly became dearly loved by her neighbors, countrymen, and folklorists around the world.
Peig Sayers was born in 1873 to Tomás Sayers and Peig Brosnan in the parish of Dunquin on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. Her father had a flare for storytelling and poetry, as did her mother, and she relished every moment she could of these tales and lyrics that her elders spun. Throughout her childhood, she would leap at any opportunity to listen to the stories of the old people in her nearby villages and towns (Peig, pg 19, 33). Her love of language did not stop with the oral traditions however. At the age of four, Peig discovered the world of literature after visiting her friend, Cáit -Jim, who was already enrolled in school. That very same day, she insisted that her parents allow her to start school that week, and reluctantly they obliged (Peig, pg 15). This was her doorway to learning reading and writing, both in English and in Irish (Peig, pg 35). Books, and thus words, became her greatest treasure.
Peig’s educational bliss did not last long. At the age of 14, her family met with difficulties, both financially and with the new daughter-in-law. In order to maintain peace and manageability within the household, Peig’s father decided to send her into the service of a family he knew in Dingle: Séamas and Nell Curran and their two sons. Peig was not thrilled with the work, often referred to her time in service as being in slavery, and dreamed of owning her own home and making her own way through life. As much spite as she may have felt towards her situation, she was always grateful to her new “family” as they treated her very well, and took on the responsibilities assigned to her dutifully.
Peig stayed with Séamas and Nell for several years, until she fell ill and went back to live with her family. It was at this time that she learned her closest childhood friend, Cáit-Jim, would be moving to America. Cáit-Jim had promised to send her passage fare so that Peig would be able to join her, but advised Peig to go back into service to earn some of the fare herself. Again, Peig was not thrilled with the idea of going back, “into slavery,” but followed her good friend’s advice. (Peig, pg. 127-130) This time, however, she wasn’t as fortunate, for her new employers were not as generous and kind to her as her previous family. Being the strong woman that Peig was, she accepted this fate, and worked hard to fulfill her one-year contract with this family.
Once this obligation had been completed, Peig received news from her beloved brother that a match was to be made. She trusted her brother whole-heartedly, and when he advised her to marry this man from the Great Blasket Island, she put her apprehensions and fears of isolated and dangerous island life aside and accepted the proposal without even seeing her future husband (Peig, pg. 151, Reflections, pg x) . This turned out to be one of the wisest decisions she had made, for she fell madly in love with her husband, Peats Guinean, at first sight. Together, they moved back to the island, and celebrated their wedding (though the festivities were dampened by the joint wake of her beautiful niece). Through the course of this marriage, Peig had 10 children, though only 5 survived to adulthood; those that survived later emigrated to America (except for Michael, who later returned).
After many years of a difficult, tumultuous life, Peig found herself alone in her home. Her husband died after a long illness and all her children gone to America. She eventually moved in with her brother-in-law, and then her son Michael. To fill these lonely nights, Peig began chatting, as the men did, about the weather, the crops and life in general, until these chats grew into story-telling and reciting poetry and songs. News spread quickly of her ability to host a fine céili, and soon everyone would gather around her, seated at the center of the hearth, eloquently weaving magnificent tales and magically suspending time and their sense of reality in that moment.
Peig continued on with this tradition well into her old age. In 1953, the Great Blasket Island was evacuated due to dwindling population (Wikipedia article, pg. 1). Peig’s health began to fade, along with her vision, and she was admitted into a hospital in An Daingean, Co. Kerry, where she was living at the time. Peig left this world in 1958 and was buried in the Dún Chaoin Burial Ground, Corca Dhuibhne in Ireland, carrying many blessings from all whose lives she touched with her.
Peig’s style of story-telling stood-out from other seanchaí because of her lyrical voice and alliteration, but also because of her animated gestures while telling the tales. She didn’t simply tell an oral tale—she told the story with her whole being. Her speech was elaborate and formal, but not a language that couldn’t be understood by the average townspeople. In Robin Flower’s book, The Western Island, he wrote of Peig:
“…is one of the finest speakers in the Island; she has so clean and finished
a style of speech that you can follow all the nicest articulations of the language
on her lips without any effort; she is a natural orator, with so keen a sense of
the turn of phrase and the lifting rhythm appropriate to Irish that her words
could be written down as they leave her lips, and they would have the effect
of literature with no savour of the artificiality of composition.” (Reflections, introductory pg. x)
Peig’s stories were vast and ran the gamut of topics. She could recite long adventurous Fionn tales, clever fairy tales, and meaningful personal accounts of her life. Her stories always reached out to the hearts of her audience. In “An Old Woman’s Reflections,” a woman from Kerry was quoted to have said, “I never heard anything so moving in my life as Peig Sayers reciting a lament of the Virgin Mary for her Son, her face and voice getting more and more sorrowful. I came out of the house and I didn’t know where I was.” Even after death, her memories and stories still live on. Peig herself had said, “It’s hard to be growing old, but, I’ll be talking after my death…” (pg. xiii)
It is fitting to say that Peig Sayers was “Larger than Life,” and that she was affectionately given the name “Peig Mhór,” or “Big Peig.” (Reflections, pg x) She was not only large in stature (a perfect compliment to her large husband), but also in spirit (Reflections, Introduction pg. x). She was strong-willed and hard-working, facing many adversities with resiliency and occasionally a smile. From early childhood, she was able to set her aim on a goal, and carry it forth. She wasn’t afraid to ask for what she needed, and even to take what she wanted—including a piece of cake, new clothes for school, or some money to buy herself a schoolbook (Peig, pg 19, 33, 34). She followed tradition in completing her familial responsibilities, but she would not shy away from taking her rightful place, as the men always did, in the center of the fireplace and the center of the attention. This strength of character, her resolve to revive and rejuvenate the “old ways” of the country, and her amazing natural ability to captivate an audience is what earns her the title of “Star,” and as “Queen of the Gaelic Storytellers.” (Reflections, pg ix)
Peig Sayers: Her Stories.
In her lifetime, Peig had recorded 375 folktales, 40 of these being long, almost epic tales, and approximately 40 folk songs (Sayers, “Reflections,” introductory page ix). Her spectrum was broad: she told faerie tales, ghost stories, Fionn tales, folk-history tales, and especially tales about her own life’s adventures and life as it was on the island. Some of these stories would include the following:
Fionn in Search of his Youth (Folktales of Ireland, O’Sullivan)
The Man Who Was Rescued From Hell (Folktales of Ireland, O’Sullivan)
Seán na Bánóige (Folktales of Ireland, O’Sullivan)
The Grave of His Fathers (Irish Folktales, Glassie)
A Pity how Youth Goes (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
St. Kathleen’s Pilgrimage; An Old Woman from Ventry; Other Matters (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
Red Tommy and Margaret O’Brien (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
The Old Woman who Wronged her Son (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
A Man who was Clean in the Sight of People, but Unclean in the Sight of God (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
A Woman who Forsook her Husband; Fox and a Hen; Other Matters (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
The Snail-Trick; Tommy Griffin’s Death; A Wake (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
A Boat-Load of Turf Brought from Iveragh during a Gale of Wind (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
The Story of Betty Kelly’s Son and his Bright Love (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
Wethers’ Well Pilgrimage; A Pagan and the Wethers; the Overcoat (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
How the Fish was Stolen from Old Kate and how Herself ate some of it (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
An Ass, a Bag of Potatoes, and Geese; Mackerel Shoaling (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
A Milk House in Little Island; Nancy Daly and Nora Keaveney (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
The Quarrel about Hens in Dunquin (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
Martin Monday, a Gaelic Speaker from Mexico (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
The News of the 1916 Revolution; the Black-and-Tans Visit (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
Seeking the Widow’s Pension; in a Motor-Car (An Old Woman’s Reflections, Sayers)
Glassie, Henry. Irish Folktales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985
Hughes, Barbara. Sayers, Peig 1873-1958. www.credoreference.com Dublin: Credo Reference, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
O’Sullivan, Sean. Folktales of Ireland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
Sayers, Peig. An Old Woman’s Reflections. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1962
Sayers, Peig. Peig: An Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island. Dublin: Talbot Press, 1973.
Wikipedia (Referencing Peig Sayers: Oxford Biography Index entry,
Peig Sayers Biography (1873–1958) – Online Encyclopedia Article,
Sean O’Sullivan, “Folktales of Ireland,” Seanad debate – Volume 183 – April 5, 2006, & HarperCollins – Julian Gough bio) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peig_Sayers. January 27, 2009.