The incoming tide is lapping gently at the rocks a few meters from where I am sitting, my backpack beside me. In the fields across Smerwick Harbour cows are lowing, the sound a deep hum carrying across the water. I try to match my breathing to the ebb and flow of the water as it inches closer to my perch, searching for a meditative state. Eleven others are scattered around me, sitting in total silence with their eyes closed, exhausted after a long day of foraging. But only one sound inhabits my head:
Irene, goodnight. Irene, goodnight
Goodnight, Irene. Goodnight, Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams.
The Weavers version unfortunately, and not the Clapton.
The twelve of us had met earlier that cold and overcast morning at the pier in Ballydavid for a Seaweed Foraging course sponsored by the Dingle Cookery School. Our instructor is Darach Ó Murchú, a Dublin born fellow with deep roots in the Dingle Peninsula.
“My mother was born and raised just there,” he says, pointing to the headland opposite the Three Sisters, on the other side of the water. “I’ve been gathering seaweed with my grandda on this very shore since I was a small boy.”
From where we sit we can see Mt. Eagle, Sybil Head, and the Sleeping Giant. The placid waters of the harbour stretch before us.
Darach asks us to introduce ourselves and tell each other why we are taking the course. We go around the circle.
There’s Don and Mary, from San Francisco, who are vacationing and wanted to compare the seaweed they see in California to that of Ireland.
Simon and Catherine and their 14-year-old son are over from the UK on holiday. Catherine is a toxicologist with a major pharmaceutical firm and studies seaweed for her work. Simon is a farmer.
Two sisters, Jill and Kelly, originally from Connemara, are interested in the different words for seaweed in the Dingle Irish compared to the Connemara Irish.
I explained that I was from just down the road in Mullenaglemig, but had moved here from New Mexico where the only seafood we ever encountered was at a sushi bar.
Rain begins to fall.
“What made you come to Ireland?” Don asks.
“We moved here for the weather,” I answer.
And then we came to Irene. Irene was on the far side of seventy-five and came from Wyoming to spend the summer in an intensive Irish language course in nearby Ballyferriter. She had a walking stick in her hand to help her navigate the rocky shore.
“Just think of the song ‘Goodnight, Irene’ to remember my name,” she said.
“Dammit,” I thought.
After a brief overview of the course, Darach led us from the pier down to the shoreline. It was rough going. Rocks, slick with seaweed, jutted at impossible angles from tidal pools. Some of us picked our way carefully, weighing each foot placement. A few resorted to advancing on hands and knees. Irene, with her stick, scampered across the rocks like a three-legged mountain goat in the Grand Tetons.
Darach stopped, squatted by a tidal pool, and reached into the water. In his hands was a deep purple plant. He explained the parts to us.
“This,” he said, pointing to the bulb where the plant was attached to a rock, “is the ‘holdfast’.” He advanced up the plant. “Here is the long stem, which allows the plant to sway in the water to better absorb nutrients. Then we branch off into the leaves. And what do you think these wee blisters are?”
“Sacs?” “Pouches?” “Nodules?” guesses come from the group.
“Good guesses all, but they are called ‘air bladders’ or ‘fruiting bodies’. They help the plant to float in the water. So, what do you think this seaweed would be called?”
“Bladder weed?” someone ventures.
“Partial credit to you. This is called ‘bladder wrack’. It can be used in soups, stews, and chowders and is an excellent source of carbs and protein.”
Darach shows us how to harvest the plant, using a scissors to cut small snippets off leaves so that the plant can regenerate. We spread out among the rocks to add bladder wrack to our canvas foraging bags.
He stops us at another pool. “What is the difference you see in this plant compared to the bladder wrack?” he asks.
“The edges of the bladder wrack leaves are smooth, but these leaves are serrated,” a keen-eyed observer says.
“So, this would be called?”
“Serrated wrack?” I offer.
“High marks to you,” he answers.
Congratulations are offered all around.
And so it goes as we follow the receding tide. Darach points out Dillisk or Duileascin Dingle Irish or, as Jill points out, Creathnachin in Connemara. There is Irish Moss or Carraigín, a common ingredient in desserts, especially ice cream. Kelp, excellent for baths or to fertilize your garden. Sea Spaghetti which makes a lovely substitute for pasta. And Sea Lettuce for a nice side salad to go with the Sea Spaghetti.
I’m chewing on a sample of Sea Lettuce that Darach has passed around.
“You wouldn’t want to eat too much of this now or you’ll have an awful stomach ache,” he says.
I stop chewing.
“How much is too much?” I ask.
“A good size bowl, I’d say.”
I go ahead and swallow.
We move among the rocks, foraging and tasting. Some creep carefully, some are on all fours. Irene leaps from rock to rock.
After five hours, our bags are full and our legs are sore. We will soon travel back to the Cookery School to sort our treasure and learn how to use it in a few dishes. But first Darach gathers us around him once more.
“I like to finish each day at the shore with a short period of meditation to help me appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. Will you join me for, shall we say, seven minutes?” Darach asks.
We spread out among the rocks and take in the mountains and the sea. The tide is just turning and the waves are slowly filling the tidal basins. A gentle breeze is coming off the water. Gulls screech over our heads.
I clear my mind until only one thought is there.
I’ll see you in my dreams.
“Dammit,” I think.