INTERVIEW Seaweed harvester Jack Higgins



Jack Higgins has been cutting the seaweed along the undulating coastline around Kilmeena for 54 years.
?Jack Higgins has been cutting the seaweed along the undulating coastline around Kilmeena for 54 years.?Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Selling seaweed from the seashore

Cutting wrack on the rocks is a way of life for one harvester from Clew Bay

Áine Ryan

ASCOPHYLLUM nodosum may be the politically correct name for the yellow seaweed (feamainn bhuí) that covers the stony shores of Clew Bay but for Jack Higgins the colloquial word ‘wrack’ is more correct.
For 54 years Higgins has been cutting the seaweed along the undulating coastline around Kilmeena, from Rossduane to Rosbeg and Rossow, and out to the inner islands of Inishloy, Inishdaff and Inishturk Beg.
It is a way-of life that has deep roots in the seasonal traditions of coastal communities along the western seaboard and, unlike so many other practices – cutting the hay with a scythe, the oats with a hook, churning the butter by hand – has not given way to mechanisation or corporate control.  
Times were tough when Jack Higgins was growing up on the 12-acre farm where he still lives with his wife and helped rear his own family. He was brought up there with six siblings in the 1950s and ’60s and while a small herd of cattle helped to fertilise the land, it was the nutrients from the seaweed – drawn from the nearby shore with the help of a donkey and cart – that ensured there was fodder for the animals and plenty of potatoes and vegetables for the long, lean winters.
This was the sepia-tinged Ireland that still had to benefit from the economic vision of Seán Lemass and TK Whitaker. It was a nation still finding its feet after the economic restrictions of the Emergency (World War II), Civil War and the freedom of self-determination gained by its relatively new status as a republic. It was still a west of Ireland where there were thatched houses and currachs, lazy beds and loys, open hearths and meitheals.  

Integral part
Cutting the wrack (seaweed harvesting) was an integral part of this world of cottage industries and communal camaraderie.   But it was not only for domestic use. It was an important enterprise – one that had been part of the seasonal working culture since the early 1800s and before -  for the Higgins family, as it was for dozens more around Clew Bay, and the Mayo coastline.
And like all practises and skills that have deep roots in rural life, it was learned at an early age.
 “My father, Peter, always harvested the wrack and we used to put it up on the land as a fertiliser because there weren’t enough cattle to manure the land. I was only ten years old when he used to bring me and the two brothers cutting the wrack. You cut it with a hook and if the neighbours weren’t cutting [on their foreshore] they told you to cut it away. You’d put it into the cart and the donkey would pull it to a place to dry it – you’d spread it on a wall. By the late ’60s the local factory owners began to take it wet,” Jack Higgins tells The Mayo News.
He explains that in the 1940s and ’50s there were three seaweed factories in Westport.
 “There was one on Distillery Road, one in where the Leisure Park is now, off James Street and one out at The Quay. The late Myles Staunton, and his father, Bertie, had a factory on The Quay in Newport as well.”
The one in Newport outlived the others and right up until the 1980s a big boat would come into the Quay a few times a year and take 400 tons of meal and fertiliser,  processed in the factory from seaweed, to Glasgow, in Scotland, until its closure.
Back then, Jack would take the harvest into Newport on his tractor and trailer and if there was a surplus – because there were a lot of cutters from Achill, Ballycroy, Tiernaur, Newport, Kilmeena, Carrowholly and out at Westport Quay – the lorry would come to the shore and take it for processing factories in Connemara or Donegal. “It’d take me a week to cut 20 tons – you’d be going down with the tide and up with it and then the lorry would come and take that load off to the factory,” he says.
 The process involves method and skill and the seaweed must be cut six to eight inches from the stone to ensure a fast re-growth. Another skill is demanded for floating and towing the seaweed back from the inner islands.“I make a big ring with a rope and I wrap the seaweed around it and pull any amount, up to four ton, in after my boat. It’s a 21-footer.”  
Jack says that these days there are about 20 or so cutting wrack from Carrowholly down to Newport.
“But there isn’t as much seaweed in it now as there was ten years ago. When the economy went wallop a lot more people, who had been working on the buildings, went cutting. They had to earn a few pounds and there for a few years there were up to 40 cutting.”