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Island Writers

by Maria 

Posted: 24 August 2003
Word Count: 985
Summary: In short this article tells of the hardships and joys endured by a great narrator of folk-tales, living on the Blasket Island, which is off the South-West coast of Ireland.

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Island Writers

"An old woman sat up in bed in Dingle Hospital. Her hair was carefully combed. As she sat in state, her sightless eyes vaguely alternating with her ears in sifting the occasions of the ward, a flock of schoolboys crowded to the stairhead and spilled quietly into the room.

As four boys walked forward, nuns and nurses watched carefully. One of the boys spoke in Irish.

'Peig Sayers', he said, 'we offer you this small gift as a mark of our esteem' …chun méid ár measa a chur in iúl duit…

He thrust his gift into the blind woman's hands. The tears came down the old features. Peig Sayers of the Blasket Island, one of the great narrators of the wonder-tales of Gaelic Ireland, and a superb natural actress was on her deathbed.

In gratitude she stretched out her hands to read and caress the boy's face."

From HERE'S IRELAND by Bryan MacMahon

The Great Blasket is the largest of a group of small islands lying off the south-west coast of Ireland. An Irish-speaking fishing community [c. 200 pop.] lived on the island, where there were no doctors or policemen, no post-office or shops or bars. During the winter months the island was completely cut off from mainland Ireland.

Today the Great Blasket Island is known throughout the world as it spawned a number of great Irish writers - Peig Sayers, Tomás Ó Criomhthain and Maurice O'Sullivan among others. None of the writers had more than a basic primary education and yet their works have been translated into many languages. They are chiefly known through English translations of their works.

Peig Sayers was born in Dunquin on the mainland in 1873. She married into the island and spent the most of her life there. She has been hailed internationally as a great storyteller, though she was illiterate in Irish and her stories were recorded from her by dictaphone or by dictation. About 5,000 manuscript pages from her can be found in the archives of The Irish Folklore Commission.

One of her books "Peig" gives a unique insight into the culture, traditions, joy and hardship of Island life. She tells of the recreations of the people on the island and how they battled with the danger of cliff and sea. Her stories relate tales of real-life heroes, with plenty of observations on neighbours, both living and dead. She tells of arranged marriages, of the fact that there was no class divisions on the island and of the tools the fishermen and farmers used, which were primitive in relation to those used on the Mainland.

One topic that fascinates readers is the culture of matches, where a woman had to marry the man chosen for her by her family. Peig's father made a match for her with a man on the island and Peig accepted this man, willingly though she had never spoken to her soon-to-be husband until she met him at the altar. She mentions days of multiple marriages at Ballyferriter, a village on the mainland. She doesn't actually speak about the Church ceremony but about what went on in the bars and the street!

Peig gives an elderly woman's view of her life, but she also recaptures her childhood and youth in a way that no other Irish writer does, in my opinion.

Peig recalls the Fenian tales in Irish folklore. There was the tale of the Battle of Ventry, in which the Fianna fought for a year against French invaders; a story about a girl called Sibéal [Sybil in English] who was drowned off Sybil Head after eloping with her lover. Another tale relates how a woman lay with a phantom man who came to her from the sea. She gave birth nine months later to a son who never slept.

I recall my mother Maura, telling me a story, that her mother Nell, would recite to her, about Peig. Peig, at age twelve was sent to the village of Cnoc a' Bhróigín to work on a farm there. Nell lived next door. The people of the village soon got to know Peig and she was nick-named "the accordion"…the reason being that the farmer who she worked for made her climb the hills and vales ten or twelve times a day, bringing cows, calves, bulls and sheep from field to field. Here is an extract from "Peig: The Autobiography":

"The summer was fine, sultry and dry. Five or six cattle were grazing on the hillside field and as the weather was so fine they often had to be driven to water. After dinner-time the boss came in.

'Peig,' he said, 'you may as well drive the cattle to water for they haven't had a drink for two days'.

Although I was lazy enough to move off I had no business going against him. That was the reason I was there and earning my tuppenny pay! I stood up and called the puppy in the house; he was very useful, for I had him trained to catch the cattle by the tail and as soon as he'd pinch them they'd go wild. My master was often angry with me because the cows' tails were torn by the pup but that didn't bother me as long as it was convenient for myself".
Peig: The Autobiography

Tragically for those of us interested in Irish culture in it's purity, the island was evacuated on November 1953, and a way of life which is totally alein to most of us, was lost forever.

Most of the islanders emigrated to the USA. In fact, 80% sailed to America and most of them settled in Springfield, Mass. There are only two former islanders living in Dunquin now, the nearest parish on the mainland to the Great Blasket Island. Peig is buried in Dunquin and her grave is facing out towards the wild Atlantic Ocean and her beloved Blasket Island.

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Comments by other Members

olebut at 10:21 on 25 August 2003  Report this post

I am completely intrigued by this account is there more?

thank you for sharing it


Maria at 18:17 on 25 August 2003  Report this post
Hi David,

Thank you for your comments. I haven't written anymore about Peig but there is loads more to write about her and about the other writers that came from the Blaskets.

It takes a bit of time researching etc. but hopefully I'll have another article on the subject in two weeks time and I'll post it here.

Thanks again,


olebut at 18:27 on 25 August 2003  Report this post

stories like this fascinate me i feel i can relate to the people, and there is so much for them to be proud of isnt there they overcome their handicaps of illeteracy and stigma to produce beautiful work

have you thought about producing enough to get published you may find the Irish equivalent of teh Arts council or who ever may help you

thanks again


Maria at 18:38 on 25 August 2003  Report this post

There is much written in Irish about Peig and the other writers. I do think they were very brave people. That world isn't actually "dead" yet but is slowly fading away, especially around here in Dingle, where I'm from. People would laugh now at what they believed in. For example, when they came off the island - once in a blue moon...to shop in Dingle, they would walk one behind the other...the reason being that this is how they walked along the cliffs in the island. Also, they travelled in Naomh Ogs - felt boats and they came in to the mainland like swallows do...in a V - shape. It amazing really...

I love our culture though some of it may seem a bit odd!!


olebut at 18:45 on 25 August 2003  Report this post

I love the poetry of the Irish ( i mean that not necessarily as the written word)
the folk music their passion their ability to describe some of the blackest events in world history in a way which gives no offence but is powerful and memorable.

Where the boats made of Felt ? or is that a euphamistic name

I wait with baited breath for your next posting

Maria at 18:51 on 25 August 2003  Report this post

A felt boat is one made of wood and covered with tar. I'm sure is you look up the word "curragh" or "currach" on the net you'll be able to view the boat.

We call them Naomh Ogs [young saints!!] here - don't know why but that is the Irish for them. We have a Regatta here every year and men and women participate in competitions where there would be four in a Naomh Og - a man and 3 women maybe racing for the trophy etc. The Regatta was actually held here yesterday.


olebut at 18:55 on 25 August 2003  Report this post
aha they are the same or similar to the corracle made by the welsh and in certain parts of England, originally they were covered with animal pelts, although the corracle is traditioanly round



( did you take part in the regatta)


is it a coincidence that last evening I turned the television on to see Billy Connely on his world tour he had reached


Maria at 19:00 on 25 August 2003  Report this post
No! I was watching our football team get annihilated...!!

Richard Brown at 10:59 on 26 August 2003  Report this post
Very evocative! I enjoyed this piece very much and agree with those who suggest that more about the island would be very welcome. A couple of suggestions. My belief is that readers expect writers to be omniscient on their subject. Early on in the piece you write; 'I have researched on the works....and I will hopefully...' I think it would be far preferable to leave this out entirely. YOU are the expert! We expect you to have done the research. Later on there's an 'in my opinion'. Much preferable, I think, to use something like 'many commentators claim...' or - just assert! Writers do it all the time (often without much justification, but readers have the right to challenge opinions). One last thing - you refer at the end to the island being 'tragically' evacuated. I think you owe it to the reader to give at least some hint of the nature of the tragedy.

I hope this doesn't sound negative - it's not meant to (at all!). There's a rich vein of material here. If, as you suggest, the story is recorded in Irish but not English then please give us ignoramusses (sp?) the pleasure of reading about life on The Great Blasket Island. My guess is that there will be a ready market for your account.

Maria at 19:51 on 26 August 2003  Report this post

You are right of course! This piece is much better without "I have researched..." etc. and I've taken it out of the article.

I'm glad you liked it. I am going to write a few more articles about the island and about Dingle etc. as I would like to share our culture with the "world out-side" if you get my drift...

The reason the evacuation was "tragic" is that we lost the old-world and we lost a culture, a pure language, a different way of life. As one of the islanders said : Ní bheidh ár leithéid ann arís [our kind will never walk this way again...] which is so sad, in my view.

Thanks again,


Maria at 19:53 on 26 August 2003  Report this post

I never heard that Billy Connolly was here!!

Ali at 22:39 on 26 August 2003  Report this post
Hello Maria,

I'm always intrested in learning about ancient and dying cultures and is very keen on folk-tales. I've enjoyed your piece and really wish there was more!
Would you by any chance know of any particualr website or online resrouce from which I can read more about it? Or will we see more of your work on here soon? I hope so.

Cheers :) x x

Maria at 23:21 on 26 August 2003  Report this post
Hi Ali,

I'm really glad you liked the piece. I plan to write another piece in two weeks time.

There is a website and when I get the info. tomorrow I'll post it here. I'll also try to get as much information about the books etc. for you.

Thanks again!


Richard Brown at 10:05 on 27 August 2003  Report this post
Maria, Thanks for your positive response to my comments! I still think it would be better to expand the 'tragically' sentence to include something like 'because the island economy was no longer viable' or whatever. 'The island was evacuated' suggests a degree of coercion to me. Was it a collective decision to go or did some resist? (In fact, the more I think about it, the more there seems to be in this aspect. I think you're going to have to write that book!)
Looking forward to the next instalment.

Ali at 11:18 on 27 August 2003  Report this post
Most appriciated, Maria. :)

Maria at 15:53 on 27 August 2003  Report this post

I've worked on the "tragic" bit and I think you're right - I've expanded it and explained a bit more. What do you think of it now?? I think it's better...



I'm still working on that,

Ali at 22:32 on 27 August 2003  Report this post
Thanks alot Maria, hope it wasnt too much trouble.
Looks good, informative. Not had a chance to go through it all yet though. Will let you know what I think soon as I do.
Thanks again. :)

Tarbra at 00:57 on 13 October 2003  Report this post
Hi Maria
Very interesting and informative. It is so sad that Island people are driven from their homes, you go to any Island in the world today, and you will find that the real locals with real roots are very thin on the ground. History just keeps repeating itself, but life goes on. Looking forward to your follow up on this, Linda
(Who lives on an Islands!)

Maria at 20:47 on 13 October 2003  Report this post
Hi Linda,

Glad you liked the article. Don't know if you've read Part 2 which is in archives. I'm doing some research and the Island and there is more on the way,


Tarbra at 11:43 on 15 October 2003  Report this post
Good, I will take a look at part two next week as I am up to my eyeballs right now, keep up the good work, Linda

Junie Girl at 23:33 on 19 October 2003  Report this post
I am fairly new here and write mostly nonfiction. I found the story about the island fascinating. I had never heard about it before. I live in the USA in N.J. but my son and his family live in Springfield Mass. and I will certainly tell him about your story. I wonder why so many of the people moved there and what they and their children do in that city now. Probably most of the first ones to settle there are dead as that was 50 years ago, altho there could have been young children.
Right now Springfield Mass is rather a depressed area [not all of it, but a large part}.
Would like to hear more about it. June

Maria at 22:29 on 20 October 2003  Report this post
Hi June,

My grand-aunt [who was not from the island but who lived quite close to it, emigrated to Springfield because a relative payed her way over there for her and got her a job. Most of my people went to Boston, for the same reason - there was someone already there to give them a home. I think when one person went over the rest followed.

My grandmother had 5 sisters and 4 brothers who went to America. The first girl and the oldest of the family, became a nun and the other 4 followed suit. The men remained batchelors, I think!! There were 15 in the family and the small farm couldn't support everyone.

My own grandmother was working in a bank in England and was very happy there. She came home on holiday, a match was made for and she married my grandfather whom she barely knew and who was 7 years younger than her. I often wonder if she was happy. I would say not, in the first years of married life but that's the way things were done back then...it's not that long ago either...

Hope this answers your question,


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