Originally published in the Western People on Monday.
The piece was written warmly and sympathetically by Cole Moreton, an English writer who already has a very fine book on the Blaskets, Hungry for Home, to his credit. Unfortunately Moreton, for all his sympathy, couldn’t resist joining the long queue that pins the blame for much childhood trauma on a little orange-coloured book with a picture of an old woman in a shawl sitting by the fire on the cover. Morton describes Peig herself as a “salty, witty, wise old woman” but bemoans the fact that her book makes her sound like a “pious misery-guts.” He goes on to remark that the book was “inflicted on generations of Irish schoolchildren who shudder at her name, even now.”
Harsh. Not a hundred miles from the truth, of course, as Peig Sayers’ (in)famous autobiography is by no means a laugh-a-minute page-turner guaranteed to split your sides with laughter, but can it really be as bad as all that? A book to elicit shudders every time it’s mentioned in society?
How Peig got to become such a touchstone for the culture that the first Irish governments strove so hard to restore is an interesting one. It speaks to our own insecurity as a people, our feudal desire, even after independence, to get approval from our former masters, and, by the end, the sad hames we’ve made of restoring the first language of the country to the people.
The story begins with the Blasket islands themselves, and their discovery by two English academics, a Yorkshireman called Robin Flower and a Londoner, George Thompson. Flower’s specialty was Anglo-Saxon English culture, from before the Norman invasion, while Thompson went even further back, to the classical world of Greece and Rome.
When Flower and Thompson discovered the Blaskets, they thought they had gone back in time. Because life on the Blaskets was so primitive, they thought they had arrived in the historical eras that interested them. Their reactions would have been similar to that of Sam Neill in the movie Jurassic Park, when he first sees the dinosaurs.
It didn’t take them long to reach for their notebooks and start telling everyone about this amazing slice of the medieval world still extant in twentieth-century Europe. And then the books were published – the three famous autobiographies of the Blaskets, the stories of a young boy, Múiris Ó Súilleabháin, an old man, Tomás Ó Criomhthain, and an old woman with, as she said herself on the very first page of the book, one foot in the grave, and one foot on the side of it.
Think back to how things looked to people in Ireland one hundred years ago, when Robin Flower first started visiting the Blaskets. All things Irish are celebrated everywhere in the country. The Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association are flourishing, the IRB is doing a spot of gun-running and now along come these two college-educated Englishmen telling us that only in Ireland, and on the most western part of Ireland at that, is society still pure and innocent and righteous. Is it any wonder it went to our heads?
Ten years later, we had the key to the car ourselves and we wondering just what in God’s name would we do with it. And, consciously or unconsciously, the original vision was to build the Blasket society on the mainland of Ireland itself. In his famous speech to the nation on St Patrick’s Day, 1943, Eamon DeValera described “the Ireland that we dreamed off would be the home of a people who … satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit.”
If that’s not a description of a Blasket islander, what is? Is that what made Peig Sayers’ book the template for the ideal Ireland – the idea that the people’s piety would counteract the people’s misery? Is that why Peig became the standard school text for so long, rather than An tOileánach or Fiche Bliain Ag Fás? Because Peig Sayers set the best example of how to grin and bear it?
Unfortunately for Dev, while he himself might be satisfied with frugal comfort, most people found (and find) it a contradiction in terms – there’s nothing comfortable about frugality. The traffic of scholars travelling to the Great Blasket was far outweighed by the traffic leaving, as people preferred running water and central heating to the frugal comfort of huddling in a currach into the teeth of an Atlantic gale.
The jig was up for the Blaskets, but nobody had the honesty to come out and say it. To say that Plan A hasn’t worked, and it’s now time for Plan B.
Seán Lemass tried to industrialise the country in the 1960s, but he wasn’t as culturally concerned as DeValera, even though he was of the same revolutionary generation. As such, things were left to drift.
The world of Peig and its importance in the culture became more and more distant to actual people’s lives, and all the energy that was put into the promotion of Irish dissipated and was lost in those endless government corridors where hope atrophies and the only light is provided by the piles of money that burn continually into the night.
But reader, none of this is Peig Sayers’ fault. She didn’t ask to be the heroine of the new state. She was a woman who lived a hard life and got on with it, just as so many generations of Irish did. Cut the old girl a break. She doesn’t deserve the abuse.