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Old pro at the heart of Blasket life

Old pro at the heart of Blasket life

Labharfad le Cách/ I Will Speak To You All: Peig Sayers By Bo Almqvist and Pádraig Ó Héalaí (eds) New Island, 312pp. ¤29


The most striking image to emerge from this latest publication relating to the renowned storyteller Peig Sayers is the picture that she herself conjures up of her reaction, as a frail old woman, to the unexpected arrival of a radio crew at her home in Baile an Bhiocáire, Dún Chaoin. It is November 1947, Peig is 74 years old and she is painracked after seven months in Dingle hospital.

Darkness is falling, and, instead of lighting the oil lamp, she is thinking of taking to her bed. She hears noise outside but thinks at first that it is the sound of an aeroplane overhead. Her son Mícheál (Maidhc) goes to investigate, refuting Peig’s suggestion that the light, gadgetry and sound that are now approaching the house are emanating from an cóiste balbh, the legendary death coach of oral tradition. When the light and sound arrive at her doorstep, Peig jumps to attention and, despite her many ailments, welcomes into her house – “de réir mar ba cheart dom a dhéanamh” (just as was proper) – three strapping young men who are carrying equipment the likes of which she has never seen before. The men have come for a purpose, and when Peig realises that the boxes and contraptions they are carrying are radio recording equipment she declares her intention to submit to the challenge of this new technology: “Déanfaimid ár ndícheall chuig pé ní a dh’féadfaimid a chur air, a chur air” (We will do our best to put anything we can on it).

The visit dramatised thus by Peig, and published here under the title Triúr strapairí ag teacht istoíche (The night visit of the three boyos), refers to the first recording of Peig Sayers in her own home by a Radio Éireann team. The men were the traditional musician and folklore collector Séamus Ennis, the broadcaster Seán Mac Réamoinn and the technician Joe de Lacy, who were joined later by the local man Seosamh Ó Dálaigh (Joe Daly), whom Peig knew well in his role as full-time collector with the Irish Folklore Commission. The material recorded on that occasion includes the above-mentioned account of their arrival and 13 other items, including two long traditional tales, a verse drama, two supernatural legends, a prayer, songs, reminiscences of life on the Great Blasket Island and a formal address entitled Óráid Pheig (Peig’s Oration) . Despite her expression of surprise, this visit was not Peig’s first experience of a radio recording session. Several months earlier, on August 12th, 1947, she was visited in St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Dingle by a BBC Third Programme radio team, headed by the producer and scriptwriter WR Rodgers. With the co-operation of Radio Éireann and the Irish Folklore Commission (which nominated Joe Daly as local facilitator), Rodgers recorded nine short items from Peig, including two traditional tales, three stories about her father, one English verse recalled from her schooldays, a prayer in Irish and two items of commentary, in one of which she explains, in English, why she doesn’t have any English-language tales. Peig made her international broadcasting debut when Rodgers used some of this material in the programme The Irish Storyteller: A Picture of a Vanishing Gaelic World , broadcast on June 13th, 1948.

Peig was recorded again by Radio Éireann in 1953, when Mac Réamoinn visited Dún Chaoin to make a programme about the final desertion of the Great Blasket Island. The material recorded in this instance is concerned mainly with Peig’s insights into island life. The style and tone of voice are familiar and conversational, and the items more akin to a personal radio interview than a traditional oral performance. The objectives of this book and accompanying compact discs, expertly edited and introduced by the folklore scholars Bo Almqvist and Pádraig Ó Héalaí, are to make Peig Sayers’s radio recordings available to the general public, to further understanding of Sayers as a traditional storyteller and to foreground the importance of the early radio recordings in the context of the Irish folklore collection in general. The book succeeds admirably on all these counts.

The sound quality of the recordings is excellent, providing a fine acoustic record of Peig’s storytelling style and, together with the introduction, transcriptions, translations and annotations, illustrating her exceptional competence and versatility as an oral performer. The editors note how the self-representations in the recordings lend support to the authenticity of the autobiographical accounts Peig (1936) and Machtnamh Seana-mhná (1939), an authenticity that has been questioned by certain critics on the grounds of their collaborative genesis (both accounts having been written down by Peig’s son Maidhc). While this is a valid point, the highly mediated nature of these radio recordings – and Peig’s sense of what is possible and appropriate in a particular communicative context – has to be taken into account here also. One of the main strengths of this book is that it foregrounds and discusses such issues. The context of the BBC recording was unsatisfactory in many ways: Peig was ill in hospital, Rodgers spoke no Irish and he and his team were working to a tight recording schedule. Nevertheless, Peig was well prepared: her carers at St Elizabeth’s Hospital were excited about the visit and even lifted her strict smoking ban in recognition of the occasion. Though Joe Daly more than likely suggested items from her repertoire that were suitable in length and subject matter for a radio audience, on the recordings we hear Peig responding immediately – like any media professional – to Rodgers’s requests. The Radio Éireann 1947 recording was made over a two-day period, and the circumstances again were not ideal, as Séamus Ennis had car trouble and Joe Daly could not stay with the crew, as one of his children was ill.

Daly’s field notes provide important details of how the recording session was orchestrated, however. They inform us about Maidhc’s reluctance to allow his mother to be recorded, how Peig consulted with Daly about what would be appropriate material for radio and how a drop of whiskey was provided to produce an atmosphere of conviviality. Peig’s easy relationship with the Irish-speaking crew is palpable in her verbal response to the arrival of the “three boyos”, which illustrates beautifully her ability to turn life into story. The importance of the medium is acknowledged in the final item they recorded, Óráid Pheig, where her vision of her own cultural role is delivered as a dramatic deathbed statement and a blessing is bestowed on “lucht an chraobhscaoileacháin” (the broadcasters) who have enabled her to disseminate her message nationwide.

The audio recordings accompanying this book represent an important chapter in an archival project that spanned several decades, involved at least 14 collectors (including English, Norwegian, Swedish, French, Swiss and Austrian as well as Irish scholars) and saw folklore recording techniques move from phonetic and vernacular transcription to the use of Ediphone cylinders, gramophone recording machines and the now-obsolete tape recorder. They present the human voice behind the 5,000 pages of oral material recorded from Peig Sayers and preserved in the national folklore archive at the UCD Delargy Centre, about 3,200 pages of which were recorded by Joe Daly. Despite the critical recognition awarded her in recent years in important publications such as Breandán Feiritéar’s television documentary Slán an Scéalaí: Scéal Pheig Sayers (RTÉ/ TG4, 1998), the volume edited by the late Raidió na Gaeltachta broadcaster Máire Ní Chéilleachair, Peig Sayers Scéalaí 1873-1958 (Coiscéim, 1999), and the radio documentary Peig: Reflections on an Old Woman, part of Cathal Póirtéir’s Blasket Island Reflections series (RTÉ, 2003), Peig Sayers’s national reputation still suffers from the taint of the classroom textbook.

Though she is widely acknowledged as one of Ireland’s most accomplished storytellers, we still await with anticipation the publication of an edition of the approximately 375 tales recorded from her. Work on that edition is under way, and the publication of the first two volumes is expected shortly. Labharfad le Cách/I Will Speak To You All reminds us once again of the huge importance of this area of research. The book is not only a significant contribution in its own right to Irish folklore studies but points to ways in which a publication project based on the Peig Sayers archive could and should become an ambitious multimedia enterprise where the oral artistry at the heart of this remarkable woman’s life and life’s work is given due acknowledgment.

Máirín Nic Eoin is head of the Irish department at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. Her latest book, Ar an gCoigríoch: Díolaim Litríochta ar Scéal na hImirce , compiled with Aisling Ní Dhonnchadha, was published by Cló Iar-Chonnachta in 2008

The Irish Times - Máirín Nic Eoin
23 Eanáir 2010

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