Island Growing: Farming the Rocky Shores of Inis Mór

GH Aran Islands LR_0003.jpg

Just how do you farm on the stony grey soil of the Aran Islands? Inis Mór native Pádraic Uí Néide harnesses the power of seaweed to grow that most Irish of all staples: potatoes.

To get to Inis Mór, the largest of the trinity of islands that make up the ‘Arans’, most visitors must make a 40-minute ferry trip across the mouth of Galway Bay before alighting in the small fishing port and village of Kilronan. ‘Stony’ is the word that many use to describe their first impression of this tiny Atlantic island, whose very landscape – from its looming, vertiginous cliff faces and its Bronze Age forts to the dry-stone walls that snake across its fields – is defined by the deep seam of silver-grey limestone that once joined it to the mainland. 

GH Aran Islands LR_0006.jpg

That same stone also defines Inis Mór’s tradition of horticulture. Plunge a spade into its shallow, sandy soil and you’re likely to hear the hard clang of metal hitting rock: in many places, the limestone ‘pavement’ lies only a few inches below the surface. And yet, despite this seeming lack of fertility, generations of islanders such as local man Pádraic Uí Néide have managed to successfully farm here, as evidenced by the neat patchwork of green fields that spreads across the island’s lower flanks. Their secret? Seaweed.

Naturally rich in organic matter and in both major and minor plant nutrients, as well as all of the numerous trace elements necessary for optimum plant health, these plant-like algae serve as a first-rate organic fertiliser and soil conditioner, allowing the islanders to transform their sandy, porous soil into a rich and fertile growing medium. In particular, seaweed is the magic ingredient in the construction of ‘lazy beds’, or iomairí as the Irish-speaking islanders call them – a traditional cultural technique once common to much of the west coast of Ireland, as well as parts of Scotland, which involves digging the ground by hand in early spring to create a series of raised ridges. 

GH Aran Islands LR_0037.jpg

It’s during the potato-planting season of February to early March that the islanders typically build these lazy beds – a labourious but wonderful ritual that marks the beginning of the growing season. If you’ve left it any later than St Patrick’s Day, though, you’re in danger of being derisively described as a ‘cuckoo farmer’. “If you’re still planting spuds by the time the cuckoo’s calling, then it’s you that’s lazy,” explains Pádraic. Asked whether he’s ever contemplated the idea of not growing his own potatoes, he looks momentarily horrified. “Never. I’d feel guilty if I didn’t.” 

GH Aran Islands LR_0058.jpg

As Pádraic’s friend, Dermot Carey – the well-known professional organic grower who ran a market garden on Inis Mór for six years – points out that it’s not just the timing of their construction that singles out one islander’s lazy bed from another, but also the considerable craft that’s brought to bear. The devil is in the detail. In particular, it’s a point of pride (and much rivalry) amongst them that each ridge is created to an identical width and depth so that they run in perfectly parallel lines across the fields. “There’s no point,” says Pádraic, “in hanging a door crooked…” Rather than bare or recently cultivated soil, lazy beds are always built on grassy land that has lain fallow for at least a couple of years. Again, timing is crucial. Leave it too late and the sward (upper layer of soil) will have grown to a point where it’s difficult to slice through it with a spade – speaking of which, the sharpness of your spade is another point of pride on the island.

GH Aran Islands LR_0047.jpg

Many of the islanders enjoy what are known as turbary rights, entitling them to harvest the seaweed fresh from the foreshore. In Pádraic’s case, he does this using a small, sharp knife to slice the loose growth away from the ‘roots’ while making sure to leave behind enough of the ‘plant’ that it will soon recover.

Once the beds are prepared, it’s a simple matter of the islanders biding their time. ‘Earlies’ planted at the beginning of February should be ready to harvest in late May/early June, while the main crop takes longer. But either way, the result is a store of mouthwateringly delicious potatoes that are grown with the goodness of the ocean.

WORDS Fionnuala Fallon  PHOTOGRAPHY Richard Johnston 

Lauren Heskin