‘There’s an old Irish phrase that says ‘prataí, páiste agus feamainn’, meaning first look after the potatoes, then the children and then the seaweed.” This are the words that Claire O’Sullivan would have heard growing up where the women in her family praised the wonders of seaweed.

From a small farm outside Bantry in Co Cork, it is no wonder she went on to become the founder of WASI – Wild Atlantic Seaweed Ireland.

“My mother, grandmother and great grandmother all hand harvested seaweed for family use,” says Claire. “We used it for so many things – I even remember my father giving it to his horses. He’d do this before he sold them as it would make their coats lean and shiny, apparently,” she says. “My whole family had this deep affinity to the sea; and my grandmother and great-grandmother both lived to over 100, claiming it was the seaweed.”

Outdoor affinity

Growing up, Claire says she always knew she wanted to do something creative, first studying complimentary medicine and then moving to architecture.

However, after a few years working as an architect, she put down her drawing board in hope of doing something more fulfilling.

“I absolutely love to be outdoors surrounded by nature,” she says.“Because I grew up on a farm, I don’t think I was cut out for sitting in an office all day. I’ve always wanted to do something that I resonated with on a deeper level.”

WASI was born in 2015 and it happened quite organically. “Myself and my partner Eli had been experimenting with seaweed pesto for years and made jars for our friends and family,” she says. “Irish people are fascinated by seaweed but they can also be quite scared of it, so the pesto was a good avenue to get it on shelves.”

The first official batch was 24 jars which she made for her local health food store and they flew off the shelf.

This really got Claire thinking about the potential for skincare. “It really took a life of its own,” she says. “I knew exactly the products I wanted to create, so I got to work.”

Now, WASI’s skincare line consists of nine carefully curated skincare products that are intended to nourish the skin.

The process

According to the founder of WASI seaweed, harvesting the seaweed isn’t the hard part – it’s giving it adequate time to dry out. “Once harvested, I hand wash it all and leave it out to dry but I have to ensure, I don’t leave it too long,” she explains. “I then start infusing and blending it with essential oils for up to six weeks, depending on the product.”

Claire O' SUllivan with her wicker basket of hand-harvested seaweed, ready to dry out. /Andy Gibson

It is important to Claire that WASI uses no artificial fragrances in its products – only essential oils, in amber glass bottles to improve potency. The line’s most popular product is the facial oil, which is infused with almond oil and other essential oils.

“The geranium in it naturally tightens the skin, promoting regeneration of cells; the bergamot then balances sebum production; and the lavender gives your skin a glow,” she says. “I recommend using the product in the morning before make-up and then in the evening after cleansing.”

WASI’s facial soap is another popular option. “The soaps are infused with naturally purifying cedarwood and lemongrass and blended with vegetable ingredients which will help refine dull skin.”

Irish people are becoming more aware of the benefits of seaweed for skincare, says Claire. “People are describing it as a miracle plant to solve a variety of skin issues, which is bringing great opportunities for the business,” she says.“We hand harvest everything. This is where you cut a small portion of the plant so it regenerates itself with very little impact and we can come to it a few years later.”

A range of WASI products which all use natural ingredients. /Andy Gibson

However, the artisan food producer also warns of the dangers of how Ireland’s costal areas could become exploited. “Ireland is in a very privileged position at the moment with our abundant seaweed beds. As a result, larger businesses are now looking at Irish aquaculture from a new angle. It’s a valuable resource but could also be exploited if it is not taken care the way it has been for generations.”

A helping hand

Despite facing a number of obstacles, especially during the pandemic, Claire says she has gotten great supports, as a small business. “BIM Flag Funding have been absolutely amazing to me,” she says. “They’ve allowed me to purchase a filling machine and a blending machine, which really reduced my working hours.”

Currently it’s just Claire with the help of her mother Margaret managing the business.“My mum helps me nearly every day,” says Claire. “She knows a lot about the sea and harvesting in general. She’s my rock and I would be absolutely lost without her help.”

For now, Claire is focusing on upscaling her business as more overseas orders are flooding in.

For more information, see wasi.ie

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