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In by-gone days and
before the advent of fertilisers there was much demand for seaweed by
the farmers on both sides of the lower Shannon for the purpose of manure
for their farm crops. The most extensive growth of the weed was
to be found around the off-shores of the Fergus islands and the weed being
so valuable the boundaries among the rocks on which it grew were as well
kept as the farm boundaries on the islands. It was a strict understanding between the islanders that the rocks
and stones on the mud flats directly opposite the different farms from
the high to the low water and on which the weed grew were the property
of the different farmers concerned.
Recent Law Case
It would appear from the report of a recent legal action that a similar understanding exists on the Atlantic seaboard at Killeenaran for generations but that in the case referred to, two neighbouring farmers cut the weed on the same day before the incoming tide in expectation of its drifting on to their respective foreshores, but by some unforeseen change of wind or current the weed got mixed and all drifted onto one of the mens shore, which he claimed, resulting in a law case.
The islanders on the Shannon and Fergus invented a means to avoid this trouble by making what they called seaweed ropes. These ropes were spun from straw called segaun and of great length. When a certain amount of the weed was cut this long straw rope was placed in a circle around the weed and a small wisp of the weed was then twisted around the rope to its full length and secured with a light segaun. When the tide flowed in all the weed floated and a man holding each end of the rope slowly drew the whole lot onto the shore with the incoming tide, amounting in some cases where the weed grew thick and heavy to ten tons when gathered at highwater mark on the shore.
This job was alright on a mild day but on a cold March day the men drawing the rope would take an hour to reach the shore by which time the seawater would have almost reached their armpits; nevertheless the teenagers used to be delighted to be put on the job. The knives the men cut the weed with were made from the blades of scythes by the local blacksmith and it was amazing to watch how deftly the men cut the weed off the stones as close as a barber shaving a client.
The Use of Boats
Where the weed grew a long distance from the shore large boats named lighters had to be used. Those boats carried six tons and it was very hard work to cut the weed and load them by two men in the short time of four hours or less. The boats had to be rowed off from the island while the tide was high to the place where the weed was growing, then cast anchor and wait until the tide receded and the boat landed on the berth among the rocks. The men then got out and started to cut as fast as possible and when they concluded that six tons was cut they started to load but had to draw the heavy weed in a handbarrow. This consisted of two strong pieces of wood with handles at the ends and lathes across the middle on which the weed was placed. The men then raised the barrow, one at either end, and walked with their load over the rough and slippery stones to the boat and lift the barrow over the gunwale of the boat. When the incoming tide came near their boat they had to board and wait until the craft refloated. This was very hard work and whether the day was wet or windy they had to endure all.
Over sixty years ago there were three large sailing boats owned by Lowislanders to carry the weed across the Shannon to Beighcastle and up the Maigue River to the Ferrybridge. Those boats had to be loaded from the lighters by throwing the heavy weed abroad with foursprong forks and discharging by similar means when destination was reached. However, the farmers were so anxious to get it that in fact they were waiting at the pier to help unload the boats and take the cargo away with them.
Low Island and Coney being the two furthest from the mainland had the most supplies, therefore Coney concentrated in supplying the Clare farmers the bulk of what was unloaded at Latoon Quay between Clarecastle and Newmarket on the Limerick Road. This entailed a trip of about five miles from the rocks so it can be understood what hard work it was to row those six ton lighters to Latoon and home again.
As the islanders had to attend to their farm work there were a number of men from the mainland who came to the islands each year to be employed at this work, especially to Low Island where the islanders had to watch and pilot incoming sailing ships with cargoes to Clarecastle for the town of Ennis. Two well-known shipwrights also came each year from the seaports of Kerry to build and repair the boats required for the seaweed trade. Their names were Steve Kellagher and Thade Murphy.
Money and Employment
It may be seen therefore what an amount of employment and money was in circulation among the islanders and villagers in those far off days. The islands were thickly populated and after the hard work was over, song and dance came next so that all looked forward to what was known as truck time as the men that came from the mainland were known as truck men. The changes from those far off days are unbelievable. On the census returns of 1840 the population of Low Island showed 130 persons, to-day there are not a dozen. There were six licensed pilots, to-day there are none, and no school. During the lifetime of the writer six families have left the island leaving the one time happy homes of song and dance derelict.
An Armed Guard
So valuable was the seaweed in those days that a watchman armed with a musket was employed to watch raiders from the Limerick side of the Shannon at night time but so fearless were they that even in daylight they made a quick raid on small boats. The Shannon and Fergus being crowded with boats it was impossible to distinguish whether they were fishing or otherwise, except by constant watch with a telescope or as they used to call it a spyglass from the banks of the river. To-day the seaweed is growing and drifting away with the tides although a good price can be obtained for it but alas nobody is left to cut or gather it. These are only some of the changes brought by the march of time, but not all.