2. Shore to Seed

In seeking to understand the dynamic relationship between islanders, the island and the maritime landscape, travellers' accounts provide a useful starting point, particularly for the 19th and early 20th centuries and especially in light of the low rate of literacy and slow spread of formal education to this rural area (Barrow 1836; Ní Ghiobúin 2001), resulting in few islanders' accounts of their own lives. Outsiders' perspectives on Achill, however, are also problematic, as they were written from particular socio-political perspectives, not uncommonly with specific political or financial aims (see, for instance, Nangle 1839). These accounts often portrayed the island's inhabitants as insular, uneducated and incapable of successfully managing the island's terrestrial and marine resources or of harnessing them for agriculture or capitalist pursuit (Moran 1988). Contemporary descriptions of the island indicated not only that Achill's inhabitants were indigent but that their persistent state of poverty was, at least in part, linked to their traditions and mannerisms, their culture being indicative of life as it had been on Achill for up to a millennia before (Hartland 1895).

In part, these impressions are likely to have grown from islanders' systems of land tenure and management, particularly rundale. In rundale, each family or household received a house and parcels for agriculture in relation to the amount of rent paid; more rent provided more, and better, land and in some cases a better house. Land was subdivided extensively, such that each tenant had access to some portion of poor, moderate and better or improved land, again in proportion to the amount of rent paid. In this system, a single household may have had several plots scattered throughout a particular village as well as in outlying areas. Leases were entered into for extended periods, often several decades, but entire villages were rented in common, so that it is not clear how much any individual household or tenant paid for their holdings or what, exactly, their holdings were (Barrow 1836). Once a common practice in many parts of Ireland, by the mid-19th century, County Mayo and particularly Achill, was one of the last locations in Ireland in which this system was utilised (McDonald 1997, 80-81).

Landholding practice in rundale is documented in rent rolls, in which groups of people are recorded paying specific sums for the rental of entire villages (NLI Mss 5821i Ms 2: O'Donel 1805; NLI Mss 5743 Ms 1: O'Donel 1810a: 23; NLI Mss 5743 Ms 2: O'Donel 1810b: 32; NLI Mss 5821ii Ms 2: O'Donel 1816; NAI TAB 21/19 Film 74 Ms 1: Faulkner 1834, 6); less clear but recorded in visitors' accounts and oral histories are the mechanisms of cooperation in agricultural practice. Rundale, generally, implied an emphasis on cooperation and group undertakings, such that many common practices were performed in groups, including the collection of turf and seaweed and the care for and harvest of crops (Otway 1839, 351; Quinn 1997, 92).

Seaweed was particularly valuable to islanders, so much so that access to it was explicitly included in leases. Though the potato, which was the primary crop on Achill by the 19th century, was generally hardy in the absence of blight, it required that villagers prepare agricultural plots by spreading burned peat and seaweed over the land to make it arable (Quinn 1997, 93); seaweed was also added to fertilizer, made with a mixture of household and livestock waste and peat ash. Men and women of all ages carried kreels, or baskets, on their backs to haul turf and seaweed if they did not have a horse, pony, or donkey to carry the load (Quinn 1997, 96; O'Crohan 2000, 3; Figure 2). Oral histories of the Blasket Islands, off the coast of County Kerry, include details about seaweed gathering and use: 'At daybreak, stripped of everything but my drawers, with a rake to gather the weed, out I'd go up to my neck in the sea; then I had to carry it up to the top of the cliff, carry it to the field and spread it. I had no tea or sugar in those days, only milk, bread and fish' (O'Crohan 2000, 146). Other methods of gathering and even cultivating seaweed were recorded, including placing rows of stones in the intertidal zone to catch seaweed and encourage its growth (Quinn 1997, 93). In western Achill, seaweed appeared on the shores of rocky and sandy beaches after rough seas. According to J. McNamara, born in the early 20th century and raised in Dooagh, Achill's westernmost village, the collection and distribution of seaweed was controlled by one or two men, appointed by villagers, who helped ensure a fair allotment based on the amount of land held. From the villages of Slievemore and Dooagh it was the women especially who collected seaweed and who either carried it themselves in their kreel or placed it in the kreel on their horses (McNamara 2006). Whatever its method of collection, seaweed was a central and necessary component of life on Achill, where residents of Achill paid as much as £150 total for access to the shores of the island specifically for the collection of 'kelp' at the close of the 18th century, a huge sum that may have covered a long lease (NLI Mss 5736 Ms 1: O'Donel 1788, 2). Only a few decades later, tenants from a single village on Achill, Slievemore, paid £3.15 for access to seaweed for just six months (NLI Mss 5743 Ms 1: O'Donel 1810a, 23).

Figure 2
Figure 2: Three women with baskets gathering seaweed on the west coast of Ireland, c. 1900-1920. (Image credit: This image is reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland. Further permission is required for reuse.)

Excavations at the village of Slievemore, in north-western Achill, yielded surprising evidence about the extent of use of seaweed in gardens. Researchers knew that seaweed was being used in the production of fertilizer, particularly plaggen, a mixture of manure, ash, seaweed and other organic materials such as heather (Rooney 1995, 15; McDonald 2000, 12). Many thin, narrow, linear lenses of sand were noted during excavation of two gardens, primarily aligned with the ridges in which potatoes would have been planted; these lenses indicate that seaweed was applied directly to the soil, an extent of use not previously known or anticipated. This method would have required more significant labour for collection, transport and application to fields than its use as a single component of plaggen. In the rundale system, this too was likely a task undertaken in groups.

The foreshore, where accessible, also offered the opportunity for salvaging items from shipwrecks, which may have been particularly important to families without labourers, cash income, or access to building materials. At the Blasket Islands, off County Kerry's south-west coast, islanders collected timber washed onshore and travelled to neighbouring islands to collect timber, metal fasteners, cargo remnants and other wreckage (O'Crohan 2000, 4-5, 185). During World War I, especially, islanders had the opportunity to collect many items from offshore wrecks, including 'flour, meat, lard, petrol, wax, margarine, wine in plenty, even shoes, stockings and clothes' (O'Sullivan 2000, 142). Britain's ancient common law dictated that such wreckage belonged to the king, who might assign his rights of wreck to a favoured noble or landowner. In 1353 Edward III appointed the first Receivers of Wreck, a title still used today for customs officials responsible for administering shipwreck salvage. In the 19th century the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 was passed, which defined categories of wreckage (jetsam, flotsam, etc.) and provided powers to the Receiver to impress men or equipment in order to save cargo, or to dispense penalties to those who looted wreckage or failed to report its presence (Bourke 2000, 8-10).

Despite these laws, islanders felt they had a right to goods washed ashore and protested strongly when challenged by local authorities (The Times 22 December 1886, 6; Meide 2006a; Meide and Sikes 2014, 128, 130). Accounts from the Blasket Islands relate that locals would frantically attempt to hide salvaged cargo from the 'Bluecoats' (as the coastguards were known) and would sometimes resort to violence against them to wrest back confiscated goods (O'Crohan 2000, 4-5). Similar accounts come from Achill, including one notable incident in December 1838 when a coastguard was killed in a dispute over salvaged goods (Seddall 1884, 12, 84, 89, 111, 116; McDonald 1997, 126-27; Meide 2006b, 30-31; Meide and Sikes 2014, 130). On Achill, shipwrecked materials were considered the property of the landowner, as evidenced by an 1860 legal dispute over wreck salvage between the Achill Mission Estate and one of its tenants, Charles Boycott (Nangle 1860b). In addition to their salvage efforts, Achill's islanders helped rescue crews and ships, most often bound for Westport, including at least two driven on shore in 1838 (The Times 1838a; 1838b), the barque Neptune which crashed against Minaun Cliffs in 1860 (Nangle 1860a; Meide 2006b, 33-35) and another vessel in 1894 (The Times 16 January 1894, 4). Such efforts were eligible for a reward from the ship owners, according to the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 (Bourke 2000, 10).

Among Achill's residents the sea may have had had multiple and dynamic meanings: while it yielded seaweed for fertilizer along with fish and shell-fish, the water was surely also a reminder of what lay beyond, including the maritime voyages of hundreds and sometimes thousands, of migrant labourers from Achill annually for seasonal work, usually in Scotland and England's agricultural fields. Potatoes, the growth of which was possible at Achill only with the addition of seaweed and ash, could be planted before travelling in the late spring and harvested upon the migrants' return in September or October (Moran 1988) and an acre's worth of potatoes, if a good crop, could sustain a family of six for up to ten months, producing nine tons of potatoes (Kingston 1990). Supplemented with fish and shell-fish and dairy from cattle, this diet was moderately nutritious (Harris 1980, 48-49). Migrants and other residents would have relied heavily on watercraft both before and after the construction of the only bridge to Achill in 1888 (McDonald 1997).