Chondrus crispus and mastocarpus stellatus. Also known as carrageen moss, carragheen, carraigín, Irish moss, jelly moss, cosainin carriage, mousse d’Irlande. Mastocarpus stellatus is also known as cluimhin chait.
“The name ‘Carrageen’ was introduced around 1830 and probably came from Carrigan Head in Co. Donegal in north-western Ireland. ‘Carrigan’ or ‘carrageen’ is a common name throughout Ireland. There does not appear to be a standardised spelling.”
Michael D. Guiry, Professor of Botany, National University of Ireland, Galway
Looking North West from our house across Donegal Bay we can see the sheer 595 cliffs of Slieve League, at the bottom of which lies Carrigan Head, Ceann an Charraigín.
Carraigín means ‘little rock’, a description that aptly sums up the steadfast and unshakable position this delicate sea plant has traditionally held in Ireland for many generations. Prepared in kitchens throughout the country to relieve sore throats, coughs, colds and chest problems, it was an equally valuable source of finance to coastal dwellers, who harvested feverishly during the equinox spring tides, so the crop could be spread to dry and bleach in the March winds and rain and be ready for sale a few weeks later.
Caoilte Breathnach, writing about folklore from Kinvara, Co. Galway, reports that carraigín was ‘plucked’ (never picked) and sold in Galway for six pennies a stone.
Dangerous work, the harvesters sometimes risked getting cut off by incoming tides as they plucked the plant off the rocks and into sacks as quickly as possible, often damaging their hands in the process. The main buyers were French cosmetic and pharmaceutical firms who used the carraigín for gels and cough mixtures, and London breweries that used it to purify beer.
In certain parts of Donegal, washed boiled carraigín, known for its nutritious qualities was fed to calves during lean times to supplement their diets, and during the uyears of the great potato famine, 1846-49, carraigín is said to be one of the three plants that kept many from total starvation, the other two being charlock and nettle. Traditionally it was also used for the treatment of burns where it was boilewd, stored in a cold place and applied to the affected area when needed, according to Peggy Hughes from Carrickfergus.
Today, carraigín is as popular as ever, and current research tells us that the old folk were correctr in their assessment of its healing properties; it is both antiviral and an expectorant (helps expel phlegm) and was the seaweed of choice to hasten recovery from chest infections. There was always a paper bag of carraigín moss in our kitchen press. When the west of Ireland winter brought its coughs and colds, my mother made us caraigin puddings with skimmed milk, a little honey, rum, raisins and chocolate powder or vanilla in a visionary effort at producing a palatable healthy treat.
Like the Irish themselves, caraigin has travelled, and become integrated into the folk medicines of other countries. Several recipes abound especially on coastal areas, like Prince Edward Island in Canada where the carraigín is called “Irish Moss’. It was exported as far as New Zealand for making the famous Bonnington’s Irish Moss cough mixture.
There is even an Irish Moss Interpretive Centre, where the Seaweed pie Café uses freshly harvested carraigín moss to make their sweet pies.
As carraigín transcends centuries and is so steeped in folklore and memories it is fitting that some of the most respected chefs in Ireland keep it firmly in their repertoire as a special treat on their desserts trolly.
This is an extract from ‘The Irish Seaweed Kitchen’ written by Prannie Rhatigan and published by Booklink. Learn more about Ireland’s seaweeds on www.seaweed.ie