This summer I discovered a very unusual book, the autobiography of a self-educated, opinionated and well-travelled Breton man from the second half of the nineteenth century. Mémoires d’un Paysan Bas-Breton was published in 1998, after the discovery of the text in 1995 in forty notebooks. Jean-Marie Déguignet was born on a small farm near Quimper in 1834. His family lost the farm soon after, and they moved to one of the poorest streets in Quimper, where the young Jean-Marie worked, among other things, as a professional beggar. He joined the army and fought in the Crimea, Italy and Mexico and returned to Brittany as a multi-lingual, self-taught, extremely sceptical and anticlerical individual. It’s a wonderful book, and Déguignet is humorous and acerbic both about his fellow Bretons and about the urban intellectuals who were collecting folklore and constructing an idealised picture of a peasant Brittany in the later nineteenth century.
There is one section that might strike a chord with Irish readers. Déguignet tells a few folk tales, one of the longest of which refers to the arrival of potato blight in Brittany in 1845. Some people (though certainly not Déguignet himself) saw it as the work of the devil, following the events recounted in the story. It’s an extraordinary tale, far more elaborate and complex than anything recorded as a popular belief about the Irish Famine. I’ve taken the pages here from an English translation by Linda Asher, published by Seven Stories Press, New York in 2004.
– Niall Ó Ciosáin.