Gathering Carrageen by Monica Connell

4 out of 5 stars

In the Northwest of Ireland is the country of Donegal, it is a beautiful part of the world, but with that beauty comes a price, it is often on the receiving end of the worst that the Atlantic ocean can through at it. Monica Connell Had many fond memories of the place, leaning into the wind of a gale whilst having the cold sea wash around her feet. They shout, but the noise of the storm drowns out their words. It bought happy and sad memories in equal measure.

Then in 1990 her and her husband, Mark, decided that they wanted to move to Donegal, but trying to find a place was proving challenging, but after a conversation in a pub, someone suggested Wattie’s house. They followed a man from the pub to where the house was located and he told them who the owner was. A visit to him the following morning proved productive and they were to be the new tenants of the house. It needed some work though, and they spent three weeks drying the house out and taking the detritus left by the previous residents down the dump. They obtained a bog trespass to allow them to cut peat. Learning to cut peat using a slean to get neat unbroken turf proved challenging at first. As summer faded away, getting the peat cut ad dried before the arrival of the winter storms was the priority.

She met Margaret after stopping to pick her up when driving one day, as they chatted they realised that they had many things in common and they agreed to meet again. She visited her home and was plied with lots of tea, biscuits and cake and Margaret asks her if she would interested in gathering carrageen and dillisk. Connell jumped at the chance to do this with her and at the next full moon headed down to the sea. Connell is shown each of the seaweeds and told to take care as she is walking over very slippery rocks to collect it. The area they are living in provides for them, she catches mackerel and pollack at Leic na Magach and cockles and whelks from other parts of the coast and goes out in a punt with men to collect lobsters from their pots.

One of the highly significant moments of her stay is the pilgrimage that she makes to Lough Dearg. Even though she wasn’t a practising catholic she was informed that she could still participate. It is supposed to be one of the toughest in the Christian world and encompasses a three day fast with only tea or coffee and bread served once a day and a 24-hour prayer vigil at the basilica. There is also a trawler trip to catch herring for a few days with Mark. It is supposed to be unlucky to have a woman aboard, but nothing befell the crew of the boat. She spent a lot of it feeling ill, and the nausea was only relieved on the bridge where she could see the sea. She attends a wedding that went onto 6 am in the morning, the band had gone home at 1 am but there were enough people there to continue playing instruments to keep the party going.

It is a glorious and evocative book about life on the west coast of Ireland. She is a wonderful writer too, you can sense the smell of the sea and hear the howling of the wind or feel the whiplash of hail in a storm, from her prose. But more than that as an anthropologist she has a good measure of the people that she befriends in her stay there, teasing out the stories of their lives and routines. Highly recommended.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    This sounds like another lovely one, I’m a big fan of books about moving location like this and it’s another one to add to my wishlist! What a glorious cover, as well.

    • Paul

      I am not sure if it is in print anymore, I bought my copy second hand

      • Liz Dexter

        Oh that’s annoying. When I can return to second-hand bookshops I will keep an eye out.

        • Paul

          I bought it second hand through Amazon, now I have a copy I am bound to find another, so if I do, I will send it on.

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