Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Péig Sayers' "Péig": Book Review

SAYERS, PEIG : Peig - The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great ...While this well-known account has sat on my shelf for decades, I read this only after staying in the author's native village of Dun Chaoin (Dunquin) in the West Kerry/Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht. Its prescribed reading for generations of schoolchildren subjected to compulsory Irish has weakened its reputation. I noted when travelling around the Dingle area and her 1873 birthplace that nothing I could see revealed Péig Sayers' presence, although my stay there was too brief, and half at night, to allow me to investigate further. Her book and that of her son are still in print and in local shops, and surely the study of the Blaskets accounts for the bulk of local commemoration, or the scholarship given to her memoir and those of her fellow islanders.

What surprised me was how much of her autobiography took place in her youth, not only in Dun Chaoin but in her Irish-speaking schooldays in the family's new residence An Ceann Trá (Ventry) nearer to Dingle, where she went to work for a household while in her teens. Most of this book are stories, naturally, told by her, with frequent invocations to the holy presences that once filled many an Irish person's mind and mouth, whether they knew the Irish or had given over to the English tongue.

After marriage takes her across the strait to the Blasket Island home where she raises a family, the years compress. The last third or so of the narrative, as with many a teller's life, is more weighted down by sorrow and lament. The frequency of these woes has led to Flann O'Brian's parody translated as The Poor Mouth by Myles na gCopaleen, to the detriment of this original inspiration. 

These tales, a century later, are frankly not that arresting. Bryan MacMahon's translation came too late for many a cribbing child's lessons, but it conveys the air of the Irish for we English-speaking readers. This may or may not be a strength for today's audiences, but the value of this historical record remains. It's not the most gripping account, but visitors to these shores today may give it a go.
(Amazon US 11-4-15)

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