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Opinion: 'Peig Sayers represents our complexity and there is a little of her in us all'

The Sayers family were Protestant Cromwellian landed genrty whose descendent ended up being one of the most famous storytellers in Europe, speaking the Irish language.

Caitríona Ní Mhurchú

THERE IS A moment in every production where you wonder exactly why you’re doing it, when you ask yourself just what is the point of it at this precise moment in time?

The air vibrates with this big dirty ‘Why?” and the question can loom even larger and dirtier when you have been mad enough to think that you can conceive, write and perform in the piece.

The talent of collaborators helps of course, and I am particularly blessed in that regard, working with Adam Gibney, Louise Lewis, Ella Clarke, Veronica Dyas, Niall Toner and Les Keye.

But the nagging question persists, and while you want to discuss it with the rest of the team, you don’t want to derail the train with doubt, so really your only choice is to keep going despite the internal questions, despite the wondering.

Last weekend was a moment like that for me. I questioned the whole enterprise. And just as I was thinking – I will ring Kris Nelson at Tiger Fringe and tell him thank you very much it was really nice of him to include Eating Seals and Seagulls’ Eggs in the programme but that it would probably be best, for all involved, if we somehow could just not do the show – my phone rang.


It was a scholar that I had contacted about the show, to see if he had the time to chat and perhaps to get a quote from him. I had heard him speak the year before and he had mentioned Peig in his lecture. He was delighted he said, to get the email. And that whatever he could do he would do. He talked about the need to challenge orthodoxies. He talked about how the meandering interconnectedness and rich imagery of Peig’s stories offer meaning and self-discovery, ideal for nurturing creativity and innovation.

How tradition is not some dead artefact but a living resource which helps us rediscover our history in order to shape our future. How tradition represents a valuable asset that can foster that very creativity.

This was not a Celtic Scholar or an Irish language Scholar, but a Doctor of Business Studies and Enterprise and his assertion was that to deny Peig is to deny ourselves the opportunity to develop an innovative self-reliant Ireland, a unique and cosmopolitan nation that is properly able to compete in a turbulent global economy.

He believes no country can be truly innovative if people do not know who they are, where they are from and where they are trying to go.

‘The most hated woman in Irish history’

And that of course, was my starting point. Peig, the most hated woman in Irish history, is really a reflection of us. In the true sense she represents the complexity of us and she challenges us to examine and celebrate who we are. The Sayers family were Protestant Cromwellian landed genrty whose descendent ended up being one of the most famous storytellers in Europe in a language they wouldn’t originally have spoken.

She was literate in English but illiterate, in the “pen and paper” sense in Irish. She is hated and adored and she could be simultaneously funny, irreverent, pious.

Looking at my own bilingualism through this extraordinary prism it helped explode it out and stopped me making bald statements or hard and fast decisions. I began to look at what it was to be bilingual after having been racially abused on the 123 bus for speaking Irish, by an Irishwoman, in her sixties.

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She shouted very loudly, that it was my fault that no Irish people had jobs and that it was the likes of me that was taking them off them and that it was because of me that her daughter couldn’t get work and that I should go back to where I came from. And then she got up from the seat beside me and moved away.

Verbally attacked for speaking Irish… in Ireland 

I had been verbally attacked for speaking Irish in Ireland. It was really a very odd experience and it made me reflect on many things about us and our society and I thought ‘I just have to look at this’. Being a theatre maker I thought the best place to do that was in the theatre.

The piece is a mediation. It’s a contemplation. It’s a wondering about us. And where we are and where we might be going.

I hope Eating Seals and Segulls’ Eggs will be beautiful and stimulating to look at, to listen to, to watch. I hope it will create a world of it’s own. And I hope too that the audience will find it occasionally funny and that they will enjoy their time in the theatre with us.

Source: Adam Gibney/YouTube

Eating Seals and Seagulls’ Eggs is on in the Project Arts Centre, Cube as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival from 14-20 September at 9pm. Tickets are from €11. More details can be found here>>

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About the author:

Caitríona Ní Mhurchú

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