EUGENE DALY continues his series on various aspects of Irish
folklore and customs
Our ancestors on the islands and along the seashore used seaweed to fertilise the soil. On Heir Island, in Roaring Water Bay in West Cork, for example, each family was allotted a section of the shore to gather seaweed; the offshore rocks were, likewise, divided. Loose seaweed was gathered on the strands, the rest was cut off the rocks. It was transported to the little fields by donkey and cart or a donkey with baskets. It fertilised the potato garden and other fields together with farmyard manure.
There are certain seaweeds which are healthy and delicious to eat. Donnchadh Ó Drisceoil, from Oileán Cléire, wrote an essay on them which was published in the Irish Times. He describes the different types, where on the shore they grew and the time of year for using them. He gives their names in Irish; the Irish speaking people of the island used the native Irish names and, most likely, didn’t know their names in English.
He mentions, sleabhchán, triopán, an gruagach, duileasc, leath-dhuileasc, meidhbheán, and an carraigín or ceann donn. The people knew the value of seafood and seaweeds in their diet.
Of the list given by Donnacha, we know the English name of some – sleabhacdhán (sloke), duileasc (dulse), an carraigín we know as carrageen moss. Máire Ní Ghuithín from the Blasket Islands mentions sea grass and sea lettuce – sleaidí dearg (red sea lettuce) and sleaidí na trá (strand sea lettuce). She records that limpet, dulse and sea lettuce were boiled together in salt water and eaten with boiled potatoes which were dipped in the juices.
My mother used carrageen moss to make a delicious pudding. It is picked from the farthest out rocks at low tide during spring tides in June. I clearly remember rowing with her out to the Catalogue Rocks between Sherkin Island and the main land. When we returned she spread it out on short grass to bleach and dry in the sun. When it was bleached, it became crisp and brown and was kept in jute bags.
The winey brown duileasc, or dulse, is found all along the Irish coast particularly on the west. It is picked on the rocks at low tide and spread out on a tin roof or on the grass.
It is mentioned in the 8th century Brehon Laws, which describes a penalty for consuming another person’s dulse without their permission. Once it was sold at fairs and markets all over the country. In the past many people sent little parcels of it to relatives who had emigrated and retained a craving for it. It was eaten raw or added to fish soups or stew.
Dulse and yellowman (a homemade crunchy toffee) are still sold at the famous Auld Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, held on the last Tuesday of August every year. ‘At the auld Lammas Fair, were you ever there?/Were you ever at the fair of Ballycastle oh/Did you ever treat your Mary Anne to dulse and yallaman?/At the auld Lammas Fair of Ballycastle, oh.
Many of our shell fish also can be collected on our strands – cockles, mussels, limpets, clams, razor fish and the humble periwinkle. As a young boy we used to collect them on our strands at the estuary of the Ilen river as it turns south to flow into Baltimore harbour.
My uncle Eddie, from Heir Island, often told me that in winter time when the lobster and herring seasons were finished, they used to pick periwinkles on strands all along the coastline from Schull to Baltimore.
This meant rising early and rowing or sailing across the bay to the strands they knew. It was hard, back-breaking work, bending down to collect the shiny black winkles from between the rocks and under the seaweeds. With nothing to eat all day except milk and brown bread, they were exhausted when they arrived home after dark.
There is a lot of hard work to pick a meal-bag full of winkles. There was, and still is, a market for them. In those hard years of the mid-twentieth century, it helped to augment the meagre income of the islanders. The writer, Estyn Evans, notes that winkles were boiled in milk as a foodstuff for children or to give extra nourishment to calves.
There are many cockle strands around our coast. We were lucky that there was a cockle strand on Inis Laoich Island, which was part of the small farm my parents had in the townland of Turkhead. We used a spade or shovel to dig them up. A little air hole gives a clue to where the cockle hides deep in the sand. Any cockles lying on the surface are invariably dead, eaten most likely by the oystercatcher.
One fish that we rarely hear about is the wrasse (ballán) but always known as ‘connor’ in West Cork. They are a fish of rocky ground and can be caught from rocks. I remember digging lug worms with my Uncle Jack. We walked to the Dún headland on Heir Island. With a homemade rod and line, with lugworms as bait. We caught, if I remember correctly, eight or nine connor, a fine feast.