Gathering Seaweed

In the Photographic Collection of the National Folklore Collection UCD there is a number of photographs showing the gathering and collecting of seaweed on the shores of the Irish coast in the twentieth century. The images were taken by different people, many of them friends of the Irish Folklore Commission. Domhnalll Ó Cearbhaill, who supplied images from Co. Galway, was a committee member of the Folklore of Ireland Society for many years and submitted a substantial amount of material to the Commission in that period, including photographs, newspaper cuttings and other notes. Many of his photographs feature the landscape of Co. Galway, where he often spent the summer months when free from his duties as a teacher. Another collection of photographs featuring the same subject were collected by the folklorist Heinrich Becker, who would later go on to publish I mBéal na Farraige, a book dedicated to stories about seaweed based on his collecting work in Co. Galway.

Gathering seaweed, Co. Galway. Photographer: Domhnall Ó Cearbhaill
Beach-combing/Cnuasacht feamainne, Co. Galway, 1940. Photographer: Heinrich Becker

Cnuasach trá, or the act of gathering from the shore, has long been in practice in Ireland as a way to collect shellfish, seaweed and other materials. The work and method used depended on the season, on the types of seaweed and shellfish gathered and the coastline of the area. Seasonal high tides, or rabhartaí, are quoted as appropriate times to find material from the shore, including Rabharta na Féile Pádraig around St Patrick’s day and Rabharta na nÉan in the month of May. Different kinds of seaweed and shellfish could be gathered at different times of the year. It could be difficult, and sometimes risky work, as is seen in accounts of those who found themselves trapped by the tide while combing the shore. This work would supplement the income of the household, or directly supplement the household meals. Wattie Brown, an informant from Bannow, Co. Wexford, explains her experience collecting seaweed, or ‘wore’, from the age of sixteen:

Early in the morning before sunrise we’d be up, and take the sprongs [four pronged pikes] in our hand and be out there at sunrise. We would have to walk out to the waist in the water and then a horse and car would be brought out for you to heave the wore into. We would have to remain there until sunset unless for the little while we’d be in at our dinner, for it wouldn’t be allowed to fill the wore after sunset, or before sunrise. The landlord made that rule and the strand bailiffs used [to] carry them out. The wages we got then was eight pence a day for staying out to the waist in water all day, in the month of April and May and loading the wore.

NFC 107: 153-154
Gathering seaweed, Annagassan, Co. Louth, c.1935. Photographer: Maurice Curtin

As the account above illustrates, there were local rules concerning the collecting of seaweed, dictating the rights to collect seaweed in particular areas and particular times. Further examples from Co. Galway are given in I mBéal na Farraige, or its translation, Seaweed Memories, by Heinrich Becker.

Seaweed was used as fertiliser, as it could substitute for manure. Seaweed could be spread onto the planted potatoes, or it could be gathered in winter and placed on the ground to prepare it for the spring planting. Seaweed gathered would make a good fertiliser for cabbages, as Máire Ní Ghuithín, Blasket Islander and part-time collector, explains in her memoir Bean an Oileán: 

Chuirtí feamnach ar chabáiste leis tar éis é a chur, agus chuireadh sé croí mór geal ann. Bhí leasú na feamnaí go hiontach chun cabáiste a ghealadh. Bhí dhá shórt feamnaí ann – feamnach dhearg agus feamnach dhubh. Sa gheimhreadh a chuirtí amach an fheamnach dhearg. Sin í an fheamnach a thagadh isteach leis an bhfarraige i dTráigh Ghearraí is i gCuas an Bháid. Chaithfeadh tráigh mhór rabharta a bheith ann chun dul amach agus an fheamnach dhubh a bhaint le scian.

Seaweed was put on cabbage after it had been planted, and it would give it a large ripe heart. Seaweed fertiliser was fantastic for ripening cabbages. There were two kinds of seaweed, red seaweed and black seaweed. The red seaweed was put out in winter. That’s the kind of seaweed that would come in with the sea in Tráigh Ghearraí and Cuas an Bháid. A seasonal low tide was needed to collect the black seaweed with a knife.

Seaweed fertiliser, An Cheathrú Rua, Co. Galway. Photographer: Kathleen Price

Seaweed was also dried and burned into a substance which could be used to make soap, glass and iodine. Drawings by the artist Simon Coleman illustrate the collecting and drying of kelp in Co. Donegal in 1949 and Co. Galway in 1959. 

Many kinds of seaweed were also eaten, including carrageen moss and dulse. Full-time collector Seán Ó hEochaidh describes dúlamán, or channelled wrack, in his article on maritime folklore:

Fásann an dúlamán cosúil le feamnach ach go bhfuil sé níos míne agus gan crapáin ar bith air. Baintear na barra de le siosúr tuairim ar órdlach ar fad. Bruitear na giotaí sin, agus níor hitheadh rud ar bith ariamh is folláine! I dtráthaibh na Nollag atá an dúlamán ina shéasúr.

The dúlamán grows like wrack, but it is smoother, without any lumps on it. The tops are removed with scissors about an inch long. Those pieces are boiled and there never was a more filling thing to eat. The dúlamán is in season around the Christmas period.

Picking and bleaching carrigeen, Co. Galway. Photographer: Domhnall Ó Cearbhaill

In the same article, Ó hEochaidh explains that seaweed could also be used in traditional cures, describing the making of a bed of seaweed in the summer, a practice from Tory Island. A person would gather seaweed after the high-tide had gone out, so that it was soaked with salty water. Someone experiencing pain in the bones would lie on the bed of seaweed and allow themselves to be covered in it, until the sun would heat the seaweed to a degree that it was hard to stand, and this was an important part of the healing process.

Many more accounts in the Main Manuscript Collection provide further details on seaweed and other shore food, as do the books of Heinrich Becker and Séamas Mac an Iomaire, author of Cladaigh Chonamara. Mioscais na gCumar, newly translated as A Cluster of Seaweed, by Máirtín Verling, also gives further information from Béarra, Co. Cork. Though the photographs of seaweed gathering do not capture the minute detail provided in the manuscripts and written texts, they do convey some of the action and effort and tools required in this practice in the last century. Many of these images are available on dú and can be viewed under the topics of seaweed gathering and beach-combing.

Gathering seaweed, Co. Galway. Photographer: Domhnall Ó Cearbhaill

This post was written by Ailbe van der Heide, Cúntóir Leabharlainne | Library Assistant, Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann | National Folklore Collection.

Further Reading:

  • Becker, Heinrich. I mbéal na farraige: scéalta agus seanchas faoi chúrsaí feamainne ó bhéal na ndaoine. Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 1997.
  • Lysaght, Patricia. ‘Food provision strategies of the Great Blasket Island: Strand and Shore’ in Almqvist, Bo, Séamas Ó Catháin, and University College Dublin Press. Northern Lights: Following Folklore in North-Western Europe : Aistí in Adhnó do Bho Almqvist/Essays in Honour of Bo Almqvist. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2001.
  • Mac an Iomaire, Séamas and Tomás Ó Máille. Cladaigh Chonamara. Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig an tSoláthair, 1938. In translation: The Shores of Connemara. Kinvara, Co. Galway: Tír Eolas, 2000.
  • Ní Ghuithín, Máire. Bean an Oileáin. Baile Átha Cliath: Coiscéim, 1986.
  • Ó hEochaidh, Seán. ‘Seanchas Iascaireachta Agus Farraige.’ Béaloideas 33, (1968).
  • O’Neill, Timothy P. ‘Some Irish Techniques of collecting seaweed.’ Folk Life 8, (1970).
  • Verling, Máirtín. Mioscais Na gCumar: Béaloideas agus Seanchas ó Bhéarra. Vol. 16. An Díseart, An Daingean: An Sagart, 2010. 

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