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The Sea Harvest in Quilty

Carrageen Moss (Mastocarpus Stellatus)
Carrageen Moss (Mastocarpus Stellatus),
Courtesy Mike Guiry

"It must be sixty years now since I remember a man travelling from Tromaire to Kildysart with sleabhacan on a horse and cart. It was a long journey and the pity is, many of the young people would not even know how to pick it nowadays”, says Quilty man, Michael Falsey.

Michael grew up in Quilty and in the past, like the majority of other farming families, his family relied on the rich supply of sea crops to complement the family income. When my father was alive there were more people around than there are now. You’d find three or four men in every house and with small fragmented holdings, sea harvesting was a handy sideline. It’s different now, they all have jobs, there is plenty of employment.

When the majority of us visit Quilty or a coastal area like it, we tend to immediately focus on the splendour of the view. However, to the person who was born and raised here, eking out a living from the sea was no easy life.

The sleabhacan, or edible seaweed, was one of the sea vegetables harvested down through the years. Michael says that the people who lived inland were far keener on it than the locals. It is a long, ribbon-like seaweed that grows on solid rock. It usually grows in the wintertime, up to maybe March when it starts to wither away. When cabbage was scarce, sleabhhacan filled the gap. It was boiled with the bacon and had to be cooked very slowly. There was a variance in the taste too, depending on where it was picked. We used to pick it out on Mutton Island; he explains, because we found it softer and easier to cook, with more natural oils in it. There would be no sand in it when we picked it there and this was important because people believed that the sand leached the oil from it. It was used especially in the wintertime; it was full of iodine and very good for the whole system.”

“Carrageen” he points out “was picked here too and there was a great market for it. The carrageen would have to be saved after being picked - bleached and dried on the sandhills with the rain and the dew and the sun. John Joe Boyle was the local agent for Cashburns in Galway and he told us one day that he knew a man who was interested in buying the carrageen just as it was picked - without saving it. We picked it and the buyer came with a lorry and took it as we came ashore with it in the curragh. He said at the time that it was going to Smithwicks Brewery in Kilkenny. I remember Glynns in Kilrush used to buy it and then export it to America. Carrageen is still used in many industries in the making of ice-cream and toothpaste and, of course, it is still used in the brewing of beer.”

Carrageen is also a great health supplement and down through the years, many people regularly use it for colds, especially chest colds. “They boil it and strain it and then mix it with maybe a drop of whiskey or lemon juice and honey. There is a story told of a man who emigrated to America years ago and had to go through the routine medical examination. On passing the examination, the doctor commented that he must have had a great doctor back home in Ireland. When asked why, the doctor explained ‘because you have had TB - the marks are on your lungs’. His mother had cured him with carrageen.” While Michael cannot verify this story, he points out that he has supplied carrageen to a man who had a serious stomach operation and was advised to take carrageen to help his stomach to heal. “The Japanese, especially, place far greater emphasis and value on all of their sea products-far more than we do here in Ireland and during World War II their soldiers used carrageen because of its healing power.”

Carrageen was also fed to cattle, but not by the farmers round the coast. People who lived inland believed that it was carrageen which made the coastal cattle so fat and healthy but Michael points out “it was too expensive to be giving it to cattle when it could be sold and money made from it. Anyway, we didn’t need to - nutrients from the sea were on the land here as well.  When we’d buy cattle one time, we would buy them from a mountainy area because they would thrive better here by the coast. I’ve seen cattle thrive out here on the island on grass that has never been manured but has been washed by the spray of the sea.”

Kelp (Laminaria Digitata)


Sleata mara are the rods cast ashore by the sea in the wintertime and they were another important source of income. The rod or stump grows on the rocks far out from the shore with a leafy seaweed growing on the top. These rods were collected on the shore tied in bundles and left on the walls to dry. Originally” Michael explains, “they were transported from Quilty station on the West Clare train. I remember the locals arriving at the station with their horse and cart and loading the rods onto the railway wagons. From Quilty they were transported all the way to a processing factory in Scotland and then later on they were taken by juggernaut with loads of thirty tons at a time. It was a good industry with good enough money to be made out of it during the winter and that continued until about four or five years ago.” Kelp seaweed was harvested in the summer time and was dried into kelp powder. It was burned in oblong trenches that had been cut into the ground and lined with stones.
Kelp (Laminaria Digitata),
Courtesy Mike Guiry
 “Seaweed was burned during the summer when the weather was good,” Michael says “and the locals would work at it day and night. It was put into reeks and during a spell of good, settled weather - the kind we used to get years ago - it would be burned. This would take a day or two and then the kelp ash would be set in hard lumps which would be broken up, put into bags and taken to the station.”

All this of course was many years ago and now country life has changed. But, the price of progress is even greater in these coastal areas because the harvesting of sea products is practically non-existent. With the increase in health awareness and the growth in the organic food industry, surely the benefits of the Atlantic seaboard could be exploited to a far greater extent? Coastal erosion is the biggest problem in Quilty at the moment but hopefully this beautiful piece of Clare will not lose out in its battle with the prevailing wind in the same way it has lost its sea harvesting tradition.

By Marian O’Loughlin
Clare Champion, Friday, November 3, 2000

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