Of all the things I remember of Ballyutogue, nothing warms my heart more than an annual event that came into being because of the famine. In those blue months of midsummer when we waited for the first harvest, it was quite possible to go hungry. After the famine Kilty Larkin made a successful negotiation with the Hubbles for some of the wrack rights in the lough.
The entire village–men, women and children–moved down to the coast and set up primitive housing in an abandoned fishing village along the shore.
Daddo Friel told us that before the famine the seaweed harvesters would work naked, which was both practical and comfortable. However, the good priests took over blessing this enterprise and naturally we had to preserve our morals, so the only thing bare any more was our feet.
As Connor and I grew older we were allowed to use the knives, scythes and specially sharpened hoes. Yards upon yards of coiled rope were readied on the shore. When low tide came we moved out in curraghs to the offshore kelp beds towing a raft behind every tow boats. As they had worked their fields side by side all their lives, Tomas and Fergus labored in adjoining curraghs to cut loose and pile kelp on the raft. Colm worked with Daddy, and Liam, Conor and me did a man-size job between the three of us alongside Tomas. Soon the rafts would be running back and forth to be beached. The piles of seaweed were tied, then dragged by had over the soft sand to firmer ground where the cart wheels wouldn’t sink under the weight. Carts and ass creels were loaded and the weed carried to a long stone wall to be shaken out and laid over to dry. Before Kilty became infirm, he was in charge of that part of the operation. Kilty and the older villagers rummaged through the drying kelp, picking out thousands of trapped cockles and mussels, and separated the seaweed by its variety and use.
At the same time my ma and Finola and Brigid went out into waist-deep water to harvest kelp that had been tossed up by the storms, cutting it loose and carrying it back and forth with all they could hold in their arms.
If low tide came during the night, everyone worked by lantern light. When the shoreside harvest was completed and the sea calm, we’d go out with our daddies as part of sixteen-curragh teams into the deeper water and cut loose an entire bed and drag it ashore like a waterlogged whale.
Part of the wrack rights included taking shellfish. Throughout the night, parties of boys and girls dug for clams and scallops and oysters and chipped mussels off the rocks. This was the part Conor and I liked best because we’d choose our girls weeks in advance. There was Alanna one year, she was the first I ever kissed, and Lissy…we did more than that. There was Brendt O’Malley, who did about everything, so I even shared her with Conor. Father Lynch and Father Clunby tried to watch the clam digs but we had perfected ingenious methods of decoying them up blind alleys. As they observed us, we observed them and had so refined our bird call signals, your couldn’t tell most of us from a robin. The digs were the best part of the wracking but confessions went on afterward for weeks.
Separating the kelp was a great and messy chore. Some of it was used for animal fodder, some for making iodine and some for fertilizer. There was an edible seaweed that my ma mixed with potatoes and another typed that could be used to thicken the milk and butter.
Oily fires smoked along the coast to burn the weed down and boil it for use in making soap and bleach, and yet other kelp was watered down to preserve the shellfish. Shells were crushed and made into whitewash. A few weeks after the wracking was done our cottages gleamed with new coats.
After clam digging with the girls the feasting was best. Those who had survived the famine still had the bitter taste of seaweed and shellfish in their mouths. Loathing famine food was traditional and remained with us all our lives but in the blue months it was the difference between a full or empty belly. Besides, not having lived through the famine, I wouldn’t mind dying with the smell filling my nostrils that came from the great cauldrons of boiling cockles.
The kelp was slimy and the water dirty and sticky and the stink from the burning as bad as rotting flax. It was the lowest kind of croppy work, yet recalling the nights under the lanterns and sleeping on the sand with the girls, it was also our first step into the world of men and women in love.
We did so many things together in Ballyutogue. We prayed together and farmed together. The joy at birth, the tears of weddings and the wailings of anguish at death were all a communal affair. But nothing again in my life was as dear as the harvesting of the wrack.
from Trinity by Leon Uris