In Defence of Peig

A Feature on Irish Language Learning and Loving Peig  by Dymphna Lonergan

The Irish language book Peig is one of those text books that overwhelmingly elicit a negative response. Just a year ago it was a talking point for Ireland’s TodayFM radio program in a segment titled ‘The Best Reaction from Listeners Traumatised by Peig’. Readers’ comments included: ‘scarred for life’, ‘traumatised’, ‘resulting in cold sweats’, ‘grim’, ‘one long whinge’. Peig for me, however, has been a source of comfort and joy all my life, but my response is such a minority one that I took to reading Peig again recently to see if I should change my mind.

Peig Sayers was born in 1873 in Dunquin, Co. Kerry and moved to the Blasket Island in 1892 when she married. She became known as a storyteller as was her father before her. Peig was illiterate in Irish. On the instigation of a Dublin teacher who was a regular visitor to the Blaskets, Peig dictated her life story to her son who in turn sent the manuscript to the Dublin teacher. The result was its publication in 1936. Subsequently Peig became required reading in Irish secondary schools and it was there in 1966 that I found Peig and loved her story, studying it from 1966-1968. As late as 2006, however, the unsuitability of the book as a school text was the subject of a discussion in the Irish Senate:

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.

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The opening lines of Peig (in translation) are often cited as an example of the dreariness of the book:

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 it was in the beginning of my days.

I never read the book in translation, so my first experience of Peig was ‘Seanbhean is ea mise anois go bhfuil cos lei insan uaigh is a cos eile ar a bruach’. I was as struck by this poetic description of near death as I was of John Steinbeck’s description in Of Mice and Men that I was reading at the same time

In front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.

In both cases my reading was stopped in its tracks from wonderment at the imagery.

I studied Peig for my Leaving Certificate. It was before the Oral Irish exam element included the text, so I was not obliged to learn tracts of Peig off by heart. Instead, my experience was of the words on the page enhanced by the beauty of the Gaelic script that I had learned to read and write from the age of five. The Gaelic script was used in Irish textbooks from Irish Independence as part of the government’s campaign to restore Irish identity after centuries of English influence. Our English texts used the Roman script. The Gaelic script letters were more ornate. A special symbol was needed over some consonants for grammatical purposes. This ‘dot’ over the consonant was replaced by the letter ‘h’ when using the Roman script. The transition from Gaelic to Roman typeface in Irish textbooks happened in the late nineteen sixties. The opening lines of Peig (I am an old woman now, with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge) read in the Gaelic script Seanbean is ea mise anois go bfuil cos lei insan uaig is a cos eile ar a bruac. In later editions the Roman script is used and the letter ‘h’ is inserted where there was once a dot over the consonant: Seanbhean is ea mise anois go bhfuil cos lei insan uaigh is a cos eile ar a bruach. 

I still have my copy of Peig written in the Gaelic script and when I open it now I’m transported back to my teenage years. The text is heavily underlined where I needed to note important passages. Peig is known for its numerous sean fhocail, ‘old sayings’. The written exam would include some of these for us to translate and to explain their use in context. My marks on the page start with SF1A as a way of recording the sean fhocail throughout the book. From these notes and other comments (in Irish) on various passages, it is clear that I was listening keenly to the teacher, Sister Benen, as she pointed out the literary and historical significance of the writing. I wonder now if the introduction of the oral Irish examination to include Peig and the subsequent rote learning of passages by students has taken away the time that was given to my generation to engage with the beauty of the writing.

Most grievances about Peig are from the accounts of her life’s hardships. What resonated with me, however, was Peig as a child. I could relate to little Peig aged four who begged to be allowed to attend school so she could have books to read. I was an avid reader even before I could read. I recall waiting for my brothers and sisters to come home from school when I would empty out their school bags and look through their books. I was fascinated by the look of words even if I didn’t understand them. Long words amazed me. I remember asking my brother what one was and he told me ‘Mediterranean’. I loved the sound of another, ‘Rubicon’.

I envied Peig’s status in the family as a peata, a ‘pet’ and how her big brother carried her around in a bhaclainn ‘in his arms’. I loved how kindly the teachers and neighbours treated her. Then there were the Irish history stories she learned from listening to the adults seated around the fire. Before the new technology, access to information was limited and filtered. You learned from books if you had them, but otherwise you learned from the adults in your life, parents, aunts and uncles, teachers, priests. Peig gave me more stories about Irish history and a way of life I could not otherwise experience, being a city child. Above all Peig was an Irish child and a female Irish child with a distinctive voice and a story to tell. Female literary role models for me were rare. Our English books outside of Shakespeare and poetry that I recall were the likes of Izaac Walton’s The Compleat Angler and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. So my defence of Peig must be seen in this light too. A few years after I left school the curriculum was modernised and that may account for those younger than me not being quite so taken with Peig as I was.

I had no experience with Peig for six years between my leaving Cert. and emigrating to Australia. In 1975 I was back in Dublin on my first trip home again. In my mother’s house I found some old schoolbooks of mine, including my copy of Peig. I took them back to Adelaide and there, some months later, I opened Peig with the idea of reading it again. To my horror I could not understand a word of it. I had totally lost this language I had learned and loved over thirteen years. I immediately wrote home for an Irish-English dictionary and set about retrieving Peig. I vowed never again to lose my Irish, but. rather, to further my knowledge even more and to share the joy of Irish with as many as possible. Irish has been a major source of sustenance in my chosen life in Australia; a link with my childhood and the cornerstone of my identity.

Dymphna Lonergan

Dymphna has successfully revived her Irish language skills and written a doctorate on Australian English borrowings from the Irish language. She is a member of the Tinteán collective.