Thar Balach Isteach
Into the Island
Peig Sayers and the Blasket storytelling tradition
Barr an Chnoic Oighir
The Tip of the Iceberg
Ireland is a great literary nation. But written stories, poems and plays are not our only kind of literature – they are the tip of the iceberg. For centuries before literacy was the norm, people created and produced many genres of fiction, poetry and drama. They didn’t write their creations down – they told them.
Peig Sayers (1873-1958) was a contemporary of James Joyce (1882-1941). Like him, she had an exceptional mastery of language, a vivid imagination and an irrepressible creative urge. Sayers could write, but her greatest achievement was as an oral storyteller, in her native Irish language.
She is best known for her autobiography, Peig, a Scéal Féin, first published in 1936 and on the Irish school curriculum from 1962–1995. Peig the book does not give a full picture of Sayers – the greatest storyteller in a community of great storytellers, the Blasket Islands and Dún Chaoin. This exhibition tells that captivating story.
The Blaskets form a group of seven islands about five kilometres off the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, in the South West of Ireland. Five islands have been inhabited on occasion: the Great Blasket, Inisickilaun, Inis na Bró, Inis Tuaisceart and Beginis. Populations on the smaller islands were always low, but more sizable on the Great Blasket.
The earliest inhabitants of the islands were monks, in the early Middle Ages. Residence by secular people, since the medieval period, is thought to have been sporadic. Records indicate that from the early nineteenth century there was continual inhabitation until 1953, when the Island was evacuated. During that time the population usually hovered around the 150 mark. In 1953 it numbered only 20 and since then nobody has lived permanently on the Blaskets. Irish was always the language of the Island although English was taught in the school.
I like this lonely spot better than anywhere in Ireland. The golden mountains of Ireland stretch before me. The sea is dashing itself against the rocks and rushing into the black coves and ravines where the seals live.
Peig Sayers An Old Woman’s Reflections, 1962
Peig Sayers, Banríon Scéalaithe Éireann
Peig Sayers, Queen of Irish Storytellers
Peig Sayers was born in Baile Viocáire, Dún Chaoin. She went to school there, and as a teenager worked as a hired girl in Dingle. When she was nineteen, she married Pádraig Ó Guithín (Peatsaí Flint – a Blasket Islander and a ‘strong and athletic’ fisherman) and moved to the island. The couple had ten children, three of whom died in infancy. Peatsaí died in 1923. In 1942 Sayers and her son Mícheál moved back to Baile Viocáire. She died in St Elizabeth’s Hospital, Dingle, in 1958.
Peig Sayers was a beautiful woman, tall and sturdy, with lively eyes and a sparkling, sociable personality. She was known as an exceptionally clear and eloquent speaker. Gifted with great power of recall, she knew at least 375 stories, and told them with insight, drama and passion. In a community renowned for its tradition and rich in storytellers, she was the queen.
This is a story my father often told. He’d be telling stories in winter when the nights were long, and the neighbours were visiting, all gathered together. Every night he’d have a new story.
Peig Sayers from an interview with Bo Almqvist, 1957
Scéalta Peig Sayers
Peig Sayers' Stories
Scéaltóirí Eile: Tradisiúin na Blascaodaí
Other Storytellers: A Blasket Island Tradition
Peig Sayers inherited her gift as an oral storyteller from her father, Tomás, of Dún Chaoin. Her gift, in turn, was passed on to her son Mícheál, ‘An File’ – or ‘The Poet’. When Sayers moved to the Great Blasket she brought her talent and stories with her.
Tomás Ó Criomthain
Eibhlís Ní Shúilleabháin
Muiris Ó Súilleabháin
Mícheál Ó Gaoithín (‘Maidhc File’, ‘An File’)
Máire Ní Ghuíthín (‘Máire Mhaidhc Léan’)
Pádraig Ó Maoileoin
Ó Maoileoin left Dún Chaoin in his teens. The trajectory of his career illustrates the link between the old oral tradition and the contemporary literary culture – like Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, he moved from the Kerry Gaeltacht to Dublin and became a writer.
Maxim Gorky showed Tomás that a fisherman could write a book as well as a man of learning.
Briain Ó Ceallaigh, introduction to Tomás Ó Criomthain’s Allagar na hInse
Ealaíon agus Áit
A Place and Its Art
What did it mean to live on the Blasket Islands at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? A lot of hard work – planting and harvesting potatoes and hay, cutting turf, gathering seaweed and shellfish. Dangerous work, in the naomhógs (small wooden boats), fishing and hunting seals. Isolation, especially for the women, who did not row and were largely confined to the island.
Peig Sayers, the Queen of Storytellers, was in the right place at the right time – the scenic Kerry Gaeltacht, at a moment when her language and skills, her stories, were esteemed at home and abroad.
Gan páipéar, gan leabharlann, gan ardscoil ach an léann nádúrtha a fhágann comhartha ar a n-aigne ó bheith síoraí i gcaidreamh leis an nádúir, le háilleacht mhíthróchreach an domhain.
An Seabhac, réamhrá do Allagar na hInse.
Na Bailitheoirí agus na Scoláirí
Collectors and Collecting
The Blasket Islands, and the mainland Gaeltacht areas of Corca Dhuibhne, had a vibrant oral culture – folktales, legends, customs and beliefs, songs and poetry flourished in the area for centuries. From the turn of the twentieth century, the Blasket and surrounding areas became something of a mecca for collectors, linguists and scholars. The interaction of islanders with visitors from many parts of the world heightened their own awareness of the value of their language and culture. Indeed, it is questionable if the ‘Blasket Island Library’ – over twenty books by various islanders – would ever have come about had it not been for the influence of the outsiders.
Seosamh Ó Dálaigh
Collectors like Ó Dálaigh kept field diaries to record their daily working life and the everyday activities of their ‘informants’. In his collector’s diary, Ó Dálaigh tenderly recounts meeting Peig Sayers for the first time on 15 September, 1942. When Sayers moved to Baile Viocáire on the mainland, he visited her 275 times in nine years.
Carl Wilhelm von Sydow
He is credited with having taken the very first photograph of Peig Sayers. He was the father of the actor Max von Sydow.
Kenneth Jackson (1909-1991)
Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (1900-1940)
Heinrich Wagner (1923-1988)
Seán Ó Súilleabháin (1903–1996)
Ó Súilleabháin's notes outline the proposed headings and sub-headings for the Commission's subject-based card catalogue system, and correspond to the range of topics in A Handbook of Irish Folklore (1942).
Peig’s Editors and Scholars
But Peig Sayers’ real gift was as a storyteller, not a writer. The main experts on Sayers as a storyteller were Bo Almqvist and his colleagues and friends, Dáithí Ó hÓgáin and Pádraig Ó Héalaí.
Pádraig Ó Héalaí (1941– )
Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
Coimisiún Bhéaloideas Éireann
The Irish Folklore Commission
In 1935, Séamus Ó Duilearga (Joe Daly), a brilliant scholar from Antrim, persuaded the government to set up the Irish Folklore Commission. This state-funded institution employed several full-time collectors in Irish speaking regions throughout the island of Ireland and set up an archive in Dublin.
Over a dozen people, of half a dozen different nationalities, collected stories from Peig Sayers. These include Máire Ní Ghuithín, Máire Nic Gearailt, Máire Ní Chinnéide, Cormac Ó Cadlaigh, Coslette Ó Cuinn, Pádraig Ó Braonáin, and others. You are introduced to a selection of the collectors here.
I realised that the old house was on fire. It was about time some of the furniture was taken out before the whole thing went up.
Séamus Ó Duilearga, 1974
Cartlann de Shamhlaíocht na nGael
Archive of the Irish Imagination
The National Folklore Collection in UCD is the successor of the Department of Irish Folklore (1970), and of the Irish Folklore Commission (1935). The tasks of teaching folklore as an academic subject at undergraduate and graduate level, of maintaining and augmenting the archive, of making it available to the public and of collecting folklore and developing the subject are its main objectives.
The collecting and study of folklore evolve over time. While the main task in the 1930s to 70s was recording the great folktales, mainly in Irish-speaking regions, by the late 1970s the Urban Folklore Project focused on collected street games, urban legends and memories in Dublin. Present projects include collecting recollections of the Irish Civil War, memories of the Irish Protestant community and a film about St Patrick’s Well in Clondalkin.
Cad tá i ndán don Scéalaíocht Amach Anseo?
What is the Future of Storytelling?
Storytelling was the main form of entertainment in Ireland in the days before plays, books, films and televisions became widely available. A great variety of stories were known, to suit every taste. Most stories told in Ireland were versions of international tales known throughout Europe and in some cases much farther afield. They passed from mouth to mouth, from storyteller to storyteller, around the world.
The organisation Storytellers of Ireland/Aos Scéal Éireann, which was founded in 2003 to develop and perpetuate the art of oral storytelling, includes not only active storytellers but people who have an interest in folklore and performance storytelling. It includes a directory of some 45 storytellers who are available for storytelling from all parts of the country. Well-known Irish storytellers include Nuala Hayes, Jack Lynch, Pat Speight and Joe Brennan.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
For the National Folklore Collection
Director of Cultural Heritage Katherine McSharry
Archivist Jonny Dillon
Sound Technician Simon O'Leary
Administrator Ailbe van der Heide
Exhibition Text Dr Éilis Ní Dhuibhne Almqvist
IRC Curatorial Assistant & Postdoctoral Researcher Dr Katie Mishler
Creative Direction Simon O’Connor & Benedict Schlepper-Connolly
Digital Producer Ian Dunphy
Sound Recordists Anthony Nolan & Benedict Schlepper-Connolly
Sound Design Ian Dunphy
Cameras Néstor Romero Clemente, Luke Brabazon
Video Editing Néstor Romero Clemente
Digital Exhibition Design David Donohoe
Developer Stuart Cusack
Audio courtesy of National Folklore Collection
Images courtesy of Alamy, Duchas.ie, National Folklore Collection, New Island Books, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, UCD Digital Library
Translation Dr Éilis Ní Dhuibhne Almqvist & Clare Rowland
With thanks to P.J. Barron, Anne Brady, Leila Budd, Matthew Cains, Joe Collins, Sandra Collins, Peter Coulahan, Gary Coyle, Rita Duffy, Evelyn Flanagan, Caoimhe Fox, Geoffrey Keating, Professor Margaret Kelleher, Richael Leahy, Susie Lopez, Oisín Mac Giolla Bhríde, Dr Criostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Katherine McSharry, Professor Gerardine Meaney, Brock Montgomery and Claire de Haas, National Library of Ireland, Lorcán Ó Cinnéide, Caoimhghin Ó Fraithile, Dr Padraic Ó Healaí, Gráinne O’Kelly, Maria Simonds-Gooding and Tom Simonds-Gooding.