The Mountains of Mourne
by Ian Sherry of Rostrevor, N. Ireland
I’m sure there’s a valley in Oregon just like our valley and I’m equally sure my forbearers would have been there. We started going to America in the first half of the 1800s. I’ve been looking at Oregon on my old school atlas and see that it’s about three times the size of Ireland. The Blue Mountains, The Cascades, a Coastal Range and a fertile plain along the sea. I wonder did you too use seaweed to fertilise your land?
Rostrevor is where ‘The Mountains of Mourne Sweep Down to the Sea’ and we here on the shores of Carlingford Lough had an abundance of wrack. Storms wash huge banks of seaweed up on the shore. In the past this was a valuable source of fertilizer for the land and when the wrack ‘was in’ entire townlands transported it up the valley with horses and carts. We used wrack in the alleys of drills when planting potatoes and we spread it on lea fields to give a flush of spring grass. It was noted that grazing cattle preferred the seaweed–treated sections to those heartened with farmyard manure. Perhaps it was the trace of salt that attracted the stock.
A little further along the coast in the shallow tidal waters of Millbay they cultivated wrack. Farmers rented (from the landlord) a couple of sandy acres between high and low tides and put down granite boulders spaced like potato drills. Nature did the rest and in a couple of years these boulders were clothed in a thick crop. Exposed for just a few hours each day, harvesting was a heavy wet job of cutting and piling on horse and cart.
There’s an edible seaweed popular in Ballycastle, a market town on the north coast. Theres even a song about it. ‘Will you treat your Mary Ann to some Dulse and Yellaman, at the Oul Lamas Fair in Ballycastle O.’ Dulse is a dried seaweed with a faint salty bacon taste, Yellaman is a candy made from a boiled syrup and sugar mix, not a confectionary I’d recommend to those ‘with any regard for their teeth.’
Then there’s ‘carrageen moss.’ It’s a seaweed that grows abundantly on our shore. My mother put great store by it. Bleached in the sun its ivory fibres are boiled in milk, strained and allowed to set. I’ve never liked milky things and could only stomach it with several more than her recommended spoonful of blackcurrant jam.
Seaweed as a fertilizer has been relegated to the past. It’s ‘bag-stuff’ now and when land is reseeded limestone that has been ground in the quarry is sown on the land.
I remember the last load of burnt lime to arrive in our country. It came already ‘burnt’ from a kiln in the quarry. The lorry was tipped up and we slipped the chunks of burnt limestone out into wheelbarrow sized piles all over the field; then we slaked it. Pouring water from a bucket on each clump of stones. There was much combustion and effervescence and chemical activity until it broke down into dust that could be spread with a shovel over the field.
Our country is peppered with small stone built lime kilns. In my great grandfather’s time the practice was for limestone to be carted from the quarry at Dundalk and ‘fired’ locally. I find it hard to accept that in the mid 1800s we in the hills above Rostrevor would have carted limestone from 30 miles away. Layered it with cheap coal in the kiln and ‘fired’ it for days just to spread it on the land. I’m inclined to think it would be more for building. I was speaking to a friend of mine who worked with lime plaster in ‘listed buildings.’ He tells me there was no damp course in the past and that lime plaster absorbed the damp taking it in and in warm weather breathing it out.
We reminisce about whitewashing and lime use as a disinfectant — hen houses, pig houses, byres. And on the stones around wells. Bluestone was added to the whitewash to give it an extra sparkle, and the 18 inches of tar along the bottom of the traditional Irish cottage was not simply for aesthetics but to deter rats. Hens picked whitewash to shell their eggs, we dusted cut potato seed to seal it from infection and we believed a freshly cut potato rubbed on the back of the hand and the hand then dipped in lime wash was a sure fire cure for warts. (I’m not recommending that.)
I now live in the village and throughout my career as a land surveyor still maintained my seven fields (six acres) and a ‘mountain right’ ‘up the road’. The ‘mountain right’ is the right to graze; with twenty others one thousand acres of rough upland. In retirement I continue to do (all be it at a gentler pace) what I’ve done all my life. I like a nice cob to work in the garden and hack on the mountain, a good dog and a dozen Mourne ewes. Its now my practice to go down to the shore in the morning, fill three bags of sea-weed and bring them with me up to my smallholding in the back of the car. There in my half acre garden I run down a drill with the pony, (having ploughed it earlier) and into that drill spread my bags of wrack. I then knock a little soil on the seaweed, plant my potatoes on top, close the drill, its all as simple as that. Come harvest I expect a good crop of potatoes and other vegetables and not a trace of seaweed to be found. Incidentally I keep seaweed away from soft fruit bushes. I once put it around blackcurrants and gooseberries and I think that could be why (that year) they didn’t thrive?
In the 1950s the Mourne ewe was small and hardy, had one lamb and prospered without supplement between mountain and fields. In a snowfall the shepherd would hunt their sheep through whins, the activity shaking the snow from the top of the gorse, exposing fresh shoots, foliage to sustain the flock for a while. I just about remember the movement to improve the breed. The criterion: A ewe should be tall with clean black legs, ‘a sprickle’ face, a long snout to eat between the rocks, and full white fleece. They must be of sound conformation, have a ‘good mouth’ for their age and pleasingly curved horns. My Mourne ewes are now much bigger and broader. In Mourne speak ‘good tight sheep that carry their mouth’. Easily lambed around St. Patricks Day (17th March) the lambs sold off the ewes in early August. Prices — Tup lambs perhaps £60/£70; ewe lambs for breeding have a premium of a little more.
There’s an old Scottish proverb ‘Give your enemy a pet lamb’ and it strikes me as true. It will fully occupy them, try their patience, frustrate their endeavour, and finally break their heart when despite all their best efforts there’s a good chance it won’t survive. Well my pet lamb did survive and after more than sixty years I can still see it reflected in my sheep today.