The Blasket Islands, foremost amongst them the Great Blasket Island, lie at the tip of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. Peig Sayers (1873–1958) was a renowned folk storyteller who was based on the Blaskets for most of her life. She left the islands eleven years before all of their inhabitants were forcibly evacuated by the Irish government. Sayers was illiterate in Irish Gaelic and so she dictated her books to her son and folklorist academics. These works were widely taught in Irish secondary schools though, unlike with Shakespeare and Burns, there was something of a revolt amongst the customers. Sayers became, in popular culture, a byword for rural backwardness and Gaelic incomprehensibility. It is quite the irony: perhaps never has the folk been so emphatically rejected by the people. She rarely turns up in schools today.
Caitríona Ní Mhurchú’s play “Eating Seals and Seagulls’ Eggs,” which is still showing in the Pleasance Dome, provides a solid overview of Sayers’ story. It is one of those documentary-minded Fringe plays which adopts as its subject an interesting historical figure who is, albeit on the whole deservedly, not today a household name. The Victorian fairy painter Richard Dadd and the ephebophile author Frederick Rolfe have figured in previous such Fringe plays. These plays are always successfully educational and yet there is never any great urgency to their drama. “Eating Seals…” is particularly handicapped by a format which is strangely remote from its theme and subject. Sayers herself (Mhurchú) and one of her descendants (Louise Lewis) who now lives in Massachusetts appear within a chamber outside of any time and place to narrate her life. They do this by way of a colourful theatrical multimedia presentation, but the results mimic, in a way which might sometimes seem oppressive, the same twitchy overly-edited tone of a YouTube vlog.
“Eating Seals…” is refreshingly unsentimental about the cultural validity of the folk. Indeed, at one point a huge image of Sayers’ face appears behind the play with the word “cunt” printed over it. The trouble with this play is that it struggles to find an intelligible reply to its own criticisms of Sayers. We are played a vox pop of embittered former schoolchildren who are icy and also very funny in their contempt for her. We might agree with these voices, and so their abuse falls on Sayers’ head rather than that of the educators who, for reasons which are never really explained, promoted her as the be all and end all of Irish literature. We are told about Blasket islanders who starved and suffered when storms cut them off from the mainland in 1947 (I gather that Sayers had left the island by then, but this does not come across in the play). We might conclude that life on the Blaskets was simply impractical and that the government was right to pull the plug.
The case for Sayers and the Blaskets could be made by delving into her/their folklore, but throughout this play it remains more of a tang in the air than squarely on the table. We grasp a few snatches about talking seals and mothers who disguise their sons as girls to prevent the good people from taking them, though not nearly enough. The magic slips through our fingers.
But, of course, a play which wants us to read Sayers’ stories has at least taken the right strategy in inciting us to trek off and hunt some of them down.