Peig Sayers

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Peig Sayers
Headstone of Peig Sayers
Headstone of Peig Sayers
Dún Chaoin, County Kerry, Ireland
Died8 December 1958 (aged 84–85)
Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland
OccupationStoryteller, housewife
Notable worksPeig
SpousePádraig Ó Guithín

Peig Sayers (/ˌpɛɡ ˈsɛərz/; 1873–1958) was an Irish author and seanchaí born in Dunquin (Dún Chaoin), County Kerry, Ireland. Seán Ó Súilleabháin, the former archivist for the Irish Folklore Commission, described her as "one of the greatest woman storytellers of recent times".[1]


She was born Máiréad Sayers in the townland of Vicarstown, Dunquin, County Kerry, the youngest child of the family.[2] She was called Peig after her mother, Margaret "Peig" Brosnan, from Castleisland. Her father Tomás Sayers was a renowned storyteller who passed on many of his tales to Peig. At the age of 12, she was taken out of school and went to work as a servant for the Curran family in the nearby town of Dingle, where she said she was well treated. She spent two years there before returning home due to illness.[3]

She spent the next few years as a domestic servant working for members of the growing middle class produced by the Land War. She had expected to join her best friend Cáit Boland in America, but Cáit wrote that she had had an accident and could not forward the cost of the fare. Peig moved to the Great Blasket Island after marrying Pádraig Ó Guithín,[2] a fisherman and native of the island, on 13 February 1892.[4]

She and Pádraig had eleven children, of whom six survived.[3]

The Norwegian scholar Carl Marstrander, who visited the island in 1907, urged Robin Flower of the British Museum to visit the Blaskets. Flower was keenly appreciative of Peig Sayers' stories. He recorded them and brought them to the attention of the academic world.[5]

In the 1930s a Dublin teacher, Máire Ní Chinnéide, who was a regular visitor to the Blaskets, urged Peig to tell her life story to her son Mícheál. Peig was illiterate in the Irish language, having received her early schooling through the medium of English. She dictated her biography to Mícheál. He then sent the manuscript pages to Máire Ní Chinnéide in Dublin, who edited them for publication. The book was published in 1936.

Over several years from 1938 Peig dictated 350 ancient legends, ghost stories, folk stories, and religious stories to Seosamh Ó Dálaigh of the Irish Folklore Commission[1] (while another source tallies 432 items collected by Ó Dálaigh from her, some 5,000 pages of material).[6] One matter of speculation is whether there were delicate material that a female informant such as she would have refrained from recounting to a male collector (Irish Folklore Commission's policy being to hire only male collectors), though there was evidently close rapport established between the two individuals, which perhaps overrode such hypothetical barriers.[7] She was also among the informants not comfortable with being recorded mechanically on the Ediphone, so the material had to be taken down on pen and paper.[8]

She continued to live on the island until 1942, when she returned to her native place, Dunquin.[9] She was moved to a hospital in Dingle, County Kerry where she died in 1958. She is buried in the Dún Chaoin Burial Ground, Corca Dhuibhne, Ireland. All her surviving children except Mícheál emigrated to the United States to live with their descendants in Springfield, Massachusetts.[citation needed]


Sayers is most famous for her autobiography Peig (ISBN 0-8156-0258-8), but also for the folklore and stories which were recorded in Machnamh Seanmhná (An Old Woman's Reflections, ISBN 978-0-19-281239-1). The books were not written down by Peig, but were dictated to others.


Peig is among the most famous expressions of a late Gaelic Revival genre of personal histories by and about inhabitants of the Blasket Islands and other remote Irish locations. Tomás Ó Criomhthain's memoir an tOileánach ("the Islandman", 1929) and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin's Fiche Bliain ag Fás, and Robert J. Flaherty's documentary film Man of Aran address similar subjects. The movement swiftly found itself the object of some derision and mockery – especially among the more cosmopolitan intellectual bourgeois of Ireland – for its often relentless depictions of rural hardship. Parody of this type reached its zenith with Flann O'Brien's satire of An tOileánach, the novel An Béal Bocht ("The Poor Mouth").

Peig depicts the declining years of a traditional Irish-speaking way of life characterised by poverty, devout Catholicism, and folk memory of gang violence, the Great Hunger and the Penal Laws. The often bleak tone of the book is established from its opening words:

I am an old woman now, with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge. I have experienced much ease and much hardship from the day I was born until this very day. 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.

The book was chosen as text for teaching and examining Irish in many secondary schools in Ireland. As a book with arguably sombre themes (its latter half cataloguing a string of family misfortunes), its presence on the Irish syllabus was criticised for some years.

It led, for example, to this comment from Seanadóir John Minihan in the Seanad Éireann in 2006 when discussing improvements to the curriculum:

No matter what our personal view of the book might be, there is a sense that one has only to mention the name Peig Sayers to a certain age group and one will see a dramatic rolling of the eyes, or worse.

— Seanad Éireann - Volume 183 - 5 April 2006[10]

Popular culture[edit]

In Paddy Whackery, a television show on the Irish language on television channel TG4, Fionnula Flanagan plays the ghost of Peig Sayers, sent to Dublin to restore faith in the language.[when?][citation needed]

A stage play, Peig: The Musical! (co-written by Julian Gough,[11] Gary MacSweeney and the Flying Pig Comedy Troupe) was also loosely based on Peig's autobiography.


  1. ^ a b Sean O'Sullivan, "Folktales of Ireland," pages 270–271: "The narrator, Peig Sayers, who died on 8 December 1958, was one of the greatest storytellers of recent times. Some of her tales were recorded on the Ediphone in the late 'twenties by Dr. Robin Flower, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, and again by Seosamh Ó Dálaigh twenty years later."
  2. ^ a b Luddy, Maria. "Sayers, Peig". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/58634. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ a b Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, 2002
  4. ^ "General Registrar's Office". Retrieved 29 March 2017.
  5. ^ Flower, Robin. The Western Island. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945. New edition 1973.
  6. ^ Briody (2007), pp. 468, 466.
  7. ^ Briody (2007), p. 463.
  8. ^ Briody (2007), p. 249.
  9. ^ Letters from the Great Blasket, Eibhlis Ní Shúilleabháin, p.36, Mercier Press
  10. ^ Oireachtas, Houses of the (5 April 2006). "Irish language: Motion".
  11. ^ "HarperCollins - Julian Gough bio".