Ellen Hutchins Festival – Inspirational, Educational, and Fun!

One of the highlights of our year here in West Cork has been, since 2015, the annual Ellen Hutchins Festival, always a diverse and enjoyable set of offerings with lots for families and children as well as wildflower fans like me. I am delighted this year that the Festival will go ahead – virtually. All the details are on the website at this link. Each day has suggestions for activities and walks and there’s a marvellous interactive audio guide done with the help of our friends at Abarta Heritage. Many of the activities focus on the area around the outstanding landscape of Bantry Bay – honestly, how can you resist?

Who was Ellen Hutchins? Indeed, I had never heard of her before the first Festival in 2015, when I learned that she died aged 29 in 1915, having accomplished more for science than most people do in a lifetime. I wrote about her then, in a post titled Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist. If you haven’t read it already, I suggest you take a browse through it now as a good introduction to her life and accomplishments.

At that first Festival botanist Rory Hodd (above) showed us the kind of close, detailed work that Ellen would undertake when looking at a plant. This photo was taken near the top of Knockboy, Cork’s highest mountain, where Ellen found several new species including a dwarf willow, possibly the world’s shortest tree. And she did it all in a skirt and with indifferent health!

Ellen had two methods of presenting her findings – she preserved them by drying them (a delicate process calling for practice and skill) and she also turned into an accomplished botanical artist. The illustration above, of a dried specimen is from the Ellen Hutchins website (used with thanks) and the poster below is from an exhibition of her illustrations at Kew gardens last year.

Of course, the best resource to learn about Ellen is the website which is full of details about her life, her botanical art, and her scientific achievements. As an example of resources it provides and to capture a flavour of what Ellen accomplished in her short life and the incredible legacy she left, watch this short video about Ellen and her devotion to science.

We have participated each year in Festival events – I wrote about our day in the woods with Padraig Whelan and Howard Fox (below) in my post Into the Woods. I learned so much that day, especially about native versus non-native plants and the species known as Lusitanian that are unique to this part of Ireland.

Last year I wrote about how I turned from lichen-intolerant to lichen-curious after an outing with Paul Whelan in my post Lichens and Little Things in the Woods. It inspired me to search my own garden for lichens and I found the delightful and aptly-named Pixie Cups in my rockery (below).

This year I am honoured to have been asked to host an online discussion with two writers. Marianne Lee has just published her first novel, A Quiet Tide, in which she bases Ellen’s story closely on what is known about her and on her correspondence but skilfully weaves in an imagined inner life for Ellen, battling all the confines of her time to carve out a career and a life for herself. It’s beautifully written and has been very well received – highly recommended!

The second writer (lower right) is Laura McKenna, poet and novelist, who has been inspired by Ellen’s correspondence with fellow botanist Dawson Turner, and the landscape and natural world of the Beara Peninsula and has responded in a series of poems. Laura has a PhD in Creative Writing from UCC, and her poetry has twice been nominated for a Hennessy Award. Her first novel Words to Shape my Name will be published by New Island Books in Spring 2021.

I had never heard of Ellen Hutchins before the first Festival, but now she has become like an old friend and when I am out botanising I feel her over my shoulder, telling me always to take a closer look. We are all looking forward to going back to a face-to-face format for next year’s Festival, but in the meantime, for this year, do log on to the virtual festival and consider participating, if you can, in some of the events.


One thought

  1. Thanks for this Finola
    Like you, I had never heard of Ellen H until recently.
    With the RSAI, Prof.Jim McAdams brought us to Ardnagashel last year – fascination introduction.


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