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Peig Sayers National Folklore Collection UCD
blasket storyteller

New exhibition looks to rejuvenate the image of Peig Sayers

The seanchaí and storyteller’s autobiography was on the Leaving Cert until 1995.

IT CAN BE a blessing and a curse to be featured on the Leaving Cert syllabus – for years afterwards, students might remember your work as a source of frustration.

Of course, you could also be remembered fondly as the one poet or writer whose words are still recited by people decades on.

But it’s arguable that the storyteller and seanchaí, Peig Sayers, who died in 1958, was one of those whose appearance on the Irish syllabus left her much maligned by many of those who studied her.

Even when this journalist was in school, a few years after Sayers’ book Peig was removed from the syllabus, the ghost of her reputation remained. Sighs and groans would accompany any mention of that book.

But, as anyone who’s looked beyond Peig the book will know, there was a huge amount to Sayers that her Leaving Cert reputation obscured. Though born in Co Kerry, Sayers married a Great Blasket Island native Pádraig Ó Guithín at the age of 19 and moved to the island. Her own father was a storyteller, and clearly Sayers picked up that gift too.

Now a new exhibition – Into the Island – at the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI), which will run until February 2023, aims to reinvigorate interest in Sayers’ work, as well as shine a light on the recordings of the Folklore Commission, which captured the stories of Irish people in the first half of the twentieth century.

Simon O’Connor of MoLI told The Journal: “We wanted to present an exhibition on Peig for years, since before the museum opened – you could say Peig was a glint in our eye.”

MoLI opened in 2019, and is a partnership between the National Library of Ireland and University College Dublin, and tells the story of Irish literature right up to today.

Blasket storytellers

With the Peig Sayers exhibition, they looked not just at her work but the Blasket storytelling tradition itself. 

Visiting Peig’s story made O’Connor and his colleagues reflect on Peig’s position in the pantheon of Irish literature. With the typical photo showing her wearing a traditional shawl, and the fact she was born in the 1870s, she might appear like a person from many generations ago. But she wasn’t so far removed from some of the modernist writers we still admire today. 

“This year is the centenary of the publication of Ulysses,” said O’Connor. “An interesting thing that cropped up was Peig was born not long before James Joyce [1882], and died not long after him.” Indeed, Joyce died just over a decade before Peig, making them literary contemporaries.

“They were two massive pillars of Irish storytelling, but were practically completely opposites,” said O’Connor.

He’s male, she’s female; he’s in the middle of the most urbane, high art environment, Europe in the 20th century, the height of the avant garde. She’s off on this tiny island community that’s in the process of disappearing, on the edge of the Atlantic. Both had encyclopaedic memories.

KrRYiUo8 English linguist Kenneth Jackson and Peig National Folklore Collection UCD National Folklore Collection UCD

The fact that Sayers had a certain reputation amongst people encouraged O’Connor and MoLI to explore her work. The exhibition began with a trip to the national folklore collection in UCD, where they were able to look at an array of equipment and files relating to the Irish Folklore Commission, which collected materials (including audio and film recordings) across Ireland from 1935 – 1971. Peig was one of those who featured in the collection. 

“It’s rare in museum terms to come across a place that is the single source for telling a story,” said O’Connor. “We felt this was an opportunity to maybe draw attention to the folklore collection as well.”

So in the exhibition, people can learn about Peig Sayers’ life and work, as well as that of the Blasket islanders, but also about some of the folklorists who travelled there to record them. 

Sayers was described by those who met her in terms of her formidable intellect, and she was said to have “captivated the folklorists”, said O’Connor.

Some of the folklorists featured in the exhibition include Robin Flower (nicknamed ‘Blaithín’ by islanders) and Kenneth Jackson, as well as Heinrich Wagner, Carl Marstrander and Carl Von Sydow (father of the late actor Max).

There are also paintings on display by Sayers’ son Micheál, and letters written by fellow Blasket islander and writer Tomás Ó Criomhthain. The film camera that recorded the only existing footage of Sayers is also included. The exhibition features text by writer and folklorist Éilís Ní Dhuibhne.

On at the same time is a sister exhibition called Lost in a Ceo (ceo meaning ‘mist’), by artist Gary Coyle, based on his trips to the Blaskets. 

“You’re starting with a subject where people who didn’t even study her in the Leaving Cert think they’ve studied her and dislike her,” said O’Connor of Peig Sayers. “There’s nearly such an aversion to this incredible figure.

“I think in any other situation there would be a statue to her in the middle of the capital city.”

He hopes that after visiting the exhibition, people will pick up Sayers’ work and realise “that she is really funny, and her stories are amazing – she is really mischievous and the turns of phrase are beautiful”.

Into the Island is now open at the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI), UCD Naughton Joyce Centre, 86 St Stephen’s Green South. Tickets can be bought on the MoLI website

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