Born Máiréad Sayers in the townland of Vicarstown, Dunquinn, Co Kerry, the youngest child of the family. She was called Peig after her mother, Margaret “Peig” Brosnan, from Castleisland. Her father Tomás Sayers was a renowned storyteller who passed on many of his tales to Peig. At age 12, she was taken out of school and went to work as a servant for the Curran family in the nearby town of Dingle, where she said she was well treated. She spent two years there before returning home due to illness.
She spent the next few years as a domestic servant working for members of the growing middle class produced by the Land War. She had expected to join her best friend, Cáit Boland, in America, but Cáit wrote that she had had an accident and could not forward the cost of the fare. Peig moved to the Great Blasket Island after marrying Pádraig Ó Guithín, a fisherman and native of the island. She and Pádraig had eleven children, of whom six survived.
Seán Ó Súilleabháin, the former archivist for the Irish Folklore Commission, described her as “one of the greatest woman storytellers of recent times”. Sayers is best known for her autobiography Peig, written in the Irish language. It presents evocative word pictures and imagery of her life on the Blasket Islands off the coast of Kerry. Peig was mandatory reading for every Irish high school student in the latter part of the 20th century.
Peig depicts the declining years of a traditional, Irish-speaking way of life characterised by poverty, devout Catholicism, and folk memory of gang violence, the Great Hunger, and the Penal Laws. The often bleak tone of the book is established from its opening words:
“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.”