A song about seaweed or nuances in "developing" traditional Irish texts

In the trip to Ireland that I am now preparing, I would like to talk about Irish music and the way it reflects historical events and cultural context of its time. Traditional songs and their lyrics draw my first and foremost attention. Sometimes they are nearly transparent and provide clear and understandable pictures. And sometimes you have to fiddle with them, "developing" the text layer after layer and examining the emerging patterns through filters of historical data and linguistic interpretations. This is especially true for songs in Gaelic (Irish). Despite the fact that fundamentals of Gaelic are taught in Irish school, only 2% of the Island’s population use it on daily basis. Furthermore, the language has undergone several reforms (there is old, classical and modern Irish), and has a number of dialects (Connacht, Ulster, Munster). Being blunt, “it’s a fine kettle of fish”, and the native speakers themselves often can’t make head or tail of what these texts are about.

Let’s take a look at the folk song Dúlamán. Time and region of creation are unknown (presumably Donegal, province of Ulster in the north-west of the country). Due to my weakness for masterful choirs, I share a version by the choir Anúna. The melody here belongs to an Irish composer Michael McGlynn (an expert in fusion of modern and traditional music), but the text is traditional, Gaelic.

Dúlamán is a type of seaweed, Pelvetia canaliculata, channeled wrack. The song features two types of it: "Dúlamán Gaelach" - literally “Irish seaweed”, used for dyeing clothes, and "Dúlamán maorach" - literally “stately seaweed”, used as food.

Layer 1. Translation by the line

Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed

Seaweed from the ocean, the best in all of Ireland


Oh, gentle daughter, here come the wooing men

Oh, gentle mother, bring the spinning-wheel to me

Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed

Seaweed from the ocean, the best in all of Ireland


There is a yellow-gold head on the Irish seaweed

There are two blunt ears on the stately seaweed

Spotted shoes has the Irish seaweed

The stately seaweed has a beret and trousers

Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed

Seaweed from the ocean, the best in all of Ireland


I would go to Derry with the Irish seaweed

"I would buy expensive shoes," said the stately seaweed

I spent time telling her the story that I would buy a comb for her

The story she told back to me, that she is well-groomed

Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed

Seaweed from the ocean, the best in all of Ireland


"What brings you?" asks the Irish seaweed

"At courting with your daughter," says the stately seaweed

"You're not taking my daughter," says the Irish seaweed

"Well, I'd take her with me," says the stately seaweed

Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed

Seaweed from the ocean, the best in all of Ireland


What a delightful nonsense!

Layer 2. Wikipedia

Wikipedia tells us that the song probably dates from the times of famine, when edible seaweed was a means of survival. This would explain why the girl is quite favorable to the stately seaweed, despite its "blunt ears." So most likely, the song emerged during one of the Great Famines in Ireland (1845 - 1849, 1740 - 1741, or maybe even 1315-1317).

Wikipedia also points out that the Irish seaweed and stately seaweed are actually not weeds, but people, who were then called by their profession. Therefore, the song relates a discussion between a young man (gatherer or seller of edible seaweed) with the father of a girl (gatherer of seaweed for dyeing clothes). Despite the objections of the father, the young man is determined to take the girl away. Everything here seems logical: the girl’s desire to impress her suitor ("Mom, bring me the spinning-wheel, I'll pretend that I'm hard-working"), and the chorus that is so similar to advertisement cries of merchants.

This interpretation is the most popular, one might say - official. You'll find it in the interviews with the song’s performers and in the annotations to their CD’s. Shall we stop here? Well... why have I not met any other Irish song with a similar identification of a person with the product of his or her profession? For example, a song about fishermen might sound something like this:

"Once upon a time Sprat met the Herring. Sprat says: Hey, Herring, let’s go and have whiskey? Sure, - says Herring, - and then will teach Trouts some manners!"

Something‘s wrong here…

Layer 3. Battle of dialects

It seems, I’m not the only one mystified by this song. On a forum of Irish texts admirers I came across an opinion that dúlamán is in fact the word dúramán, only in the Ulster dialect. And dúramán means dimwit or idiot. That is supposed to make sense out of this song.

Intriguing. Let’s replace the word seaweed with the word idiot. Hmm ... of course, I respect healthy self-criticism, but ...

“Idiot from the yellow cliff, Irish idiot! Idiot from the ocean, the best in all of Ireland”

Guess I should dig a bit further.

Layer 4. Linguistic

Here comes an interesting turn. Some of the Gaelic experts explain that the phrase "what brings you?" in the 6th verse should actually read: "What brings you from the land?" Might this refer to a larger land body, like Britain, or even continental Europe?

There is also a mention that maorach can mean "upstart". Then Dúlamán maorach is not stately seaweed, but upstart seaweed. Further, the phrase an dúlamán maorach once might have meant... Scot. Thus, the conversation could go between the father, an Irishman (gatherer of the dyeing seaweed), and an upstart suitor from Scotland. The text is a non-stop wordplay!

Layer 5. Geopolitical

The Irish are known for their love of symbolism and metaphors. Many of the seemingly funny songs in fact cover serious topics, like the fight for freedom and conflicts with the British. Looks like Dúlamán is not an exception. Let’s search for the right historical canvas. Someone from Scotland comes to an Irishman to woo his daughter and then takes her, irrespective of the father’s objection. Presumably during the time of famine.

1607 - Flight of the Earls. After defeat in the nine-year war with Britain, the heads of families from the Northern provinces (Ulster) flee to Spain (to get help). Their lands are confiscated and allocated for the so-called "plantation" – settlement of Protestant population, mostly from Scotland. According to the opinion of many historians (though controversial), this process laid grounds for partition of Northern Ireland territories three centuries later.

Was there famine at that period? It turns out, there was, in 1674-1675 and exactly in the Northern provinces. At the same time Protestant population in Ulster (Scots and Brits) reaches a significant share (over 20%), and green color (perhaps, made with the dye using Dúlamán Gaelach?) becomes a symbol of Irish revolutionary movements. It seems quite likely that our folk song appeared just then, in the late 17th century.

Imagine that the daughter represents the starving province of Ulster; the father is Ireland, and the upstart suitor is the more or less successful Scotland. More or less, because at that time they also experienced famine and economic recession.

- Here come the blunt-eared Scots, but they have money for shoes and combs, - said daughter-Ulster. Then thought a bit and reconsidered. - Yet, I say “no”, we are adamant!

- Why the heck have you come here? - aks father-Ireland.

- We will inhabit your land! - respond the Scots.

- Get the hell out of here! – object the Irish.

- Resistance is futile! – reply the Scots and continue to arrive in Ulster.


So much for a song about seaweed... I guess the truth is somewhere in the middle – in wordplay and mingling of meanings, in a cocktail of Scots and seaweed. And yet it could just be a humorous song of gatherers of useful algae. Who knows...