Clare Champion, Friday, May 2, 2003
The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, Elaine Saunders writes about seaweed harvesting which was once as valuable to the local economy as farming and fishing.
In 1837, a ship called the Mercator ran aground near Doonbeg, damaging seaweed on the shore, the private property of a local farmer. In a court case that followed, damages were given for “injury to seaweed”, and a total of £2 and 10 shillings was paid over to the farmer.
Around the coast of Clare and on the Fergus and Shannon Islands, seaweed harvesting was once as valuable to the local economy as farming and fishing. Although the harvesting techniques and uses differed from area to area, the importance of seaweed as a source of fertilizer, money and food, was the same everywhere.
Such was the competition for this valuable commodity, it was considered essential that each family involved in seaweed gathering received a fair share of the harvest. The foreshore and grassy area above it was divided into sections known as “scairs”, the boundary of which was marked by lines of stones that reached from the grass to the shore.
A land agent, assisted by a local, who acted as shore warden, administered the scairs, which were numbered on the first day of March every year. Numbered tickets were then drawn by each family and they received the scair that matched the number they had drawn.
Each family received two scairs, costing a halfcrown per scair. In an effort to be fair, families that drew the worst scairs for yielding seaweed, were compensated by getting a second scair in a better area, while families who drew a good scair got another in a relatively bad area. This system ensured that there would be no complaints.
The seaweed gathered itself on the shore in May, a time known in Quilty as the goradh, or the stir of the tide. Men used long handled seaweed crooks to hoist the seaweed into baskets that were carried on their backs to the flagstones above the beach.
Oilskins were worn to keep the gatherers dry, and once all seaweed was collected, it was spread on the flagstones to dry. Once dry, the seaweed was gathered into ricks, and then in late autumn, kilns, (pits lined with stones to prevent earth and other impurities from mixing with the kelp), were prepared for burning.
Hay was first set alight and then the seaweed was gradually added in. People with chest complaints came to inhale the fumes as it was believed to have medicinal qualities. This process would go on all day during late September and early October.
As the seaweed was burned it turned into a jelly-like substance that was mixed and stirred with spades. As the seaweed required constant stirring, those involved in this process were usually fed by their families at the kiln. When it had all been melted, it was left to harden so it could be cut into slabs and stacked, to be brought away by horse and cart to its final destination.
Payment for the seaweed was by the ton. The kelp was graded, and if for example it contained shells or other impurities, it was considered low-grade and fetched less money.
Before the use of fertilizers, there was great demand for seaweed by farmers on both sides of the lower Shannon for fertilizing their fields.
On the shore of the Fergus Islands seaweed grew in abundance, and due to its value, the boundaries among the rocks where it grew were kept just as well as the farm boundaries. The islanders had an understanding that the rocks opposite the different farms where the seaweed grew, was the property of that farmer.
On the Shannon and Fergus Islands, farmers used seaweed ropes spun from straw known as segaun, during the harvest. When the seaweed was cut, the rope was put in a circle around the seaweed and a small bit of seaweed was then twisted around the rope to its full length and secured with a light piece of segaun. When the tide came in, the seaweed floated, and a man holding each end of the seaweed rope slowly brought it to shore.
However, as we have seen, seaweed was a valuable commodity, and was often at the centre of crime. According to the Police statistics of 1845, in a dispute over seaweed in the townland of Baltard, Barony of Moyasta, two men attacked another man and injured him so badly that he was unable to resume employment. Incredibly, a watchman was even employed to look out for raiders from the Limerick side of the Shannon at night. Constant watch was kept with a telescope, but these raiders were so fearless that even in daylight they would make a quick raid.
There were a number of varieties of seaweed gathered, and each had their own uses. Sleabhacan was one type of seaweed used when cabbage was scarce, and was boiled with bacon. It was said that depending on where it was picked, it had a varied taste. Sleata Mara was harvested for export to Scotland for making soda potash and iodine. Another seaweed, Carrigeen, was believed to be a health supplement and was exported to the US where it was also used in the brewing of beer. It is still used to in the manufacture of ice-cream and toothpaste today.
Thomas Mc Carthy, of Clonhaninchy, Quilty, and his sons, collected seaweed some 50 years ago using a seaweed crook that is currently on loan to Clare Museum.