Blasket through the Lens

Great Blasket, one of the islands in the parish of Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) off the west coast of Kerry, was the home and life-blood of a tenacious population of Irish families for many hundred years. One of these families – the Ferriters – claim that they controlled the islands as far back as the 13th century and had established a castle there. Whoever lived there had to be tough: the terrain is wild and there is little shelter. Nevertheless, the islanders clung to their territory, and their numbers expanded in the early 19th century when Lord Ventry of Dingle evicted many of his tenants from their holdings and those who left found island life – hard though it was – preferable to persecution.

We are fortunate that, during the early twentieth century, Great Blasket was visited by curious tourists and anthropologists. Among them was Robin Flower, who became Deputy-Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum from 1929 to 1944. He had many credits to his name, including Member of the Royal Irish Academy, Doctor of Literature of the National University of Ireland and also of Dublin University. Flower became the historian of the Blaskets, which he ‘immortalised’ through his lectures and writings – and many visits. To the people of the Great Blasket he was playfully known as ‘Bláithin’ – Little Flower – which he considered a great honour. I will write more on Robin Flower in a future post, but concentrate here on some of the photographs of island life which were recorded by likeminded researchers in the first half of the twentieth century. After 1954 there was nothing to record: life on the island, three miles from the mainland and involving an often treacherous crossing, became untenable. The whole remaining population was evacuated in that year, leaving their cottages and settlements to the ruinous ravages of the wild Atlantic gales.

The header picture is a wonderful statement of youth and vigour: island children photographed outside their school in 1932 by Thomas Waddicor. I can’t find anything about this man, but a lot of his work appears in the Dúchas Photographic Collection which was established in the 1930s, so I am assuming he was an active collector and researcher himself. The second picture is by our old friend Tomás Ó Muircheartach, who also spent time on the Blaskets in the 1930s. You will find more about him here. It shows the Blasket men in their fishing curraughs below the craggy rocks of the island. The pic above is also by Muircheartach, and shows Cáit Ruiséal and Máire Ruiséal being interviewed by a follklore collector at their fireside in 1942. I am not sure where this interview took place.

This photograph is also by Thomas Waddicor and dates from 1932. The caption given in the Dúchas Photographic Collection is interesting, if not entirely enlightening: Man, Great Blasket Island: Buffer, note stuffed peaked cap – an island custom.

Another from Waddicor, also 1932: Cáit at the Well. I think what strikes me most of all is how real and alive these people are – they certainly don’t seem in any way downtrodden or in danger of extinction: perhaps it’s just because they are ‘posing’ for the camera. But it’s salutary to think that they were only on the island for another generation or so.

These two photographs (above) are also by Thomas Waddicor and also from 1932. The top one is the ‘Wife and child of Séan the King’, and the lower is ‘Children of Séan the King’. We have a bit of a conundrum here as the last ‘King’ of the Blasket Islands passed away in 1929 (according to this Irish Times article). As Waddicor left behind no photograph of the ‘King’ himself, we have to assume that the lady in the upper photograph was a widow.

More ‘family’ photographs: the upper of the three is titled ‘Eilis and Brighid’; the centre is just given as ‘Family’, while the lower is ‘Fiddler and Woman’. All are by Waddicor from 1932.

This wonderful lady is also anonymous: sadly we can only know her by the title – ‘Great Blasket Woman’. Again, Waddicor 1932 – and, once more, she seems so full of life!

This is a picture of the Great Blasket Island School. We have some further information: while the folklorists and recorders were visiting the island in 1932, the older schoolchildren decided to interview each other about local customs and lore to mimic the visitors!

Further unnamed portraits: upper ‘Two Women Great Blasket’ and lower ‘Two Women gathering Heather’. From the Waddicor collection, 1932.

We’ll finish off with a few classics. This is Tomas O Criomhthain and it’s a photo from Muircheartach. Better known to us as Tomas O’Crohan, author of the classic book about the Blaskets:

. . . Tomas O’Crohan was born on the Great Blasket Island in 1865 and died there in 1937, a great master of his native Irish. He shared to the full the perilous life of a primitive community, yet possessed a shrewd and humorous detachment that enabled him to observe and describe the world. His book is a valuable description of a new vanished way of life; his sole purpose in writing it was in his own words, ‘to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again’ . . .

The Islandman Book Review

We can’t discuss the Blaskets without mentioning Peig. That’s her, above, with folklorist Kenneth Jackson, taken by Thomas Waddicor in 1932. Peig Sayers was by all accounts a formidable lady but was also described by folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist for the Irish Folklore Commission, as ‘one of the greatest woman storytellers of recent times’. Peig was born in 1873 and died in 1958. She therefore experienced the abandonment of the island, although she had moved away from it in 1942. She was also not born on the island, but in Dunquin, Kerry, She married Pádraig Ó Guithín, a native islander, in 1892 and had eleven children, six of whom survived into adulthood. Sayers is most famous for her autobiography Peig, but also for folklore and stories which have been collected from her.

Finally, this an image of the Loganim Achive entry for Great Blasket Island, written in 1954.

I am grateful to the National Folklore Collection UCD for the use of the Thomas Waddicor images. It’s an incredible resource: this is just a small selection of the hundreds of images which have been archived

The Táin, by Hutton and Campbell

The Táin Bó Cúailnge (pronounced approximately tawn bow coolna), known in English as The Cattle Raid of Cooley, is one of the great Irish Sagas. There are many translations and illustrated versions, perhaps the most famous being that of Thomas Kinsella, illustrated by Louis LeBrocquy, published by the Dolmen Press in 1969. Almost forgotten now is the version by Mary Ann Hutton, illustrated by John Campbell – but it deserves to be remembered as one of the masterpieces of the Irish literary and artistic revival.

First of all, what is The Táin? It’s an epic tale, first written in the 7th century but preserved in various versions from the 11th to the 14th centuries with many modifications, additions and changes along the way. It tells the story of Queen Maeve, jealous of her husband’s white-horned bull, who determines to acquire the even more prestigious Brown Bull of Cooley from Ulster, ignoring the foretelling of a dreadful outcome should she proceed. The Ulstermen are rendered unable to fight by a curse, leaving the great warrior, Cuchulain, to fight alone – which, by the way, is no bother to him, especially once his warp-spasm, or battle-rage, comes on him. However, in the end he fights and kills his old friend and foster-brother, Ferdia. There’s a lot more to it, of course, and much of the tale is told by Fergus, who relates the whole story of Cuchulain as a youth and his many heroic deeds.

And what about the author and illustrator, neither of them now a household name, although justly acclaimed in their day? Mary Ann Hutton was born in England but had strong Irish connections and moved to Belfast when she married. She was highly educated, with an academic knowledge of Old and Middle Irish and became a fluent Irish speaker. She was an ardent supporter of Patrick Pearse and the Gaelic League and became a central figure in the Gaelic revival. Her version of The Táin was the result of ten years of intense scholarship. It is not a translation, but rather a rendition in blank verse of the story informed by her research into its various versions and iterations. She uses her own spellings as well – Maev and Cucullin, for example. I couldn’t find a photograph of Mary Ann, but here is the illustrator, below.

The illustrator was John Patrick Campbell, although in the spirit of the Gaelic Revival, he styled himself as Seaghan McCathmhaoil. There’s a wonderful biographical and appreciative sketch in the Irish Arts Review of 1998 by Paul Larmour* and that’s where I learned that he was also based in Belfast, that he produced illustrations for the first edition of Hutton’s Táin in 1907, but they were not used until the second edition, in 1924, and then only a selection of his illustrations were included. That’s a pity, because according to Larmour, Campbell’s illustrations for the Táin were ‘among his most impressive.’ They certainly capture the romantic spirit of the Celtic Revival period, and show his mastery of line drawing and strong black and white palette. Larmour says, This Irish epic poem conjuring up the ring of battle and the revelry of kings gave full scope to Campbell’s by now increasingly powerful expression and individuality, the drawings showing great strength of composition, dramatic power, and richness of decoration. 

I couldn’t agree more, so here are a few selections from the text (it’s available online at good old archive.org) along with Campbell/MacCathmhaoil’s illustrations. The illustration above, captioned Maev’s Second Meeting with Fergus, is from Larmour’s article and is one of those that was, inexplicably, not eventually used in the book.

And Fergus

Came from the grave where five times five score years

He had been hidden. And a beautiful

And rich appearance was upon that warrior.

Brown hair was on him ; and a hooded layna

With red inweaving of red gold. A bratt

Of bright grass-green was round him ; and he wore

A golden-hilted sword, and round-toed shoes

Wrought all of bronze. And when that warrior, Fergus,

Perceived the holy men of Erin nigh him,

It was his wish to stand, and standing, tell

The Táin he had to tell.

This was the time wherein Maev called and spake

Unto her charioteer, and bade him catch

Her steeds and yoke her chariot, so that straightway

She might repair to speak with her own Druid

And ask for prophecy and knowledge. “ Wait

One while, O Queen,” the charioteer made answer,

“ That I may three times wheel the chariot round

Sunwise, to win a sign of luck and fortune.”

He wheeled the chariot sunwise, and then Maev

Rode to her Druid. When she reached the Druid,

She asked for prophecy and knowledge.

I see a man youthful and very fair,

Who will perform great deeds, and win his fill

Of hurts and wounds in his smooth fine-fair skin.

Upon his brow, which is a meeting-place

For victories, the hero’s light flames high.

Amidst each eye the seven dragon-gems

Of a pure hero-champion flame and burn.

Plain to perceive, his intellect is keen.

A red hooked layna folds him. His fresh face

Is beautiful and noble. He observes

Towards women courtesy and modesty.

Though a mere stripling, blooming, dainty-cheeked,

He in the battle shows a dragon’s form.

His fairness and his valour now resemble

Cucullin of Mweerhevna ; and though, truly,

Who this Cucullin of green Moy Mweerhevna

May be I know not, yet this thing I know

These hosts by him will all be very red.

Four little swords for feats of special skill

He carries in each hand : he will attain

To plying these upon the hosts : the hosts

Will flee from him on every road and way.

When, in addition to his spear and sword,

He brings his dread Gae Bulg, he plants his feet

On every slope and hill. Two spears project

O’er his bright chariot-wheels : he rides to battle.

Fury distorts him, battle-fury changes

That form which hitherto I have perceived.

He is Cucullin son of Sooaltim,

Hound of the Forge : he wends unto a battle.

Your hosts, now whole, he will hack down and fell.

He will compel your slain thickly to lie.

Strong men will leave their heads with him. This I,

Fedelm the Prophetess, will not conceal.

Red blood shall drip from the white skins of heroes

Lasting and long the memory shall be

Bodies shall there be torn, women shall wail,

Through deeds of that renowned Hound of the Forge,

Whom now, O Queen, I see.

The Prophetess

Ended her prophecy : and Maev rode back

From seeking-out of prophecy and knowledge.

Said Laeg, “ here comes a chariot-rider towards us.”

“ Describe him, then, good Laeg,” Cucullin said;

And Laeg described him thus:

“ Larger,” said he,

Than is some heathy knoll, rising alone

From out a grassy level, seems to me

His noble chariot. Larger than the tree,

Reverenced and old, that stands upon the green

Of some king’s doon, appears to me the hair

That curls and waves in golden bright abundance

About that warrior’s head. A crimson fooan,

Fringed and embroidered, folds him round : a spike

Of graven gold secures it. In his hand

He holds a wide, red-flaming spear. A shield,

Carven, and compassed by a ridge of gold,

He has ; and a long sword-sheath, which for size

Is like the rudder of some kingly vessel,

Reposes on the huge and seated thighs

Of that great, haughty warrior, planted there

’Midst of his chariot.”

Then Cucullin cried :

“ Oh, welcome, ever welcome is the coming

Of that beloved guest ! I know that guest.

It is my guardian and my fosterer,

My gentle, noble Fergus, who comes there.”

Cucullin saw his weapon, red with blood,

Lying beside Faerdeeah ; and he said:

“ O my Faerdeeah, sorrowful the fate !

I, with my merciless weapon still unwashed :

Thou, pale in death upon a couch of gore.

Sad—what has come of our meeting here

I, wounded, sinking, covered with rough gore:

Thou, altogether dead ! Oh, dear to me

The friend to whom I have served a draught of blood!”

*John Campbell (1883-1962) An Artist Of The Irish Revival by Paul Larmour, 1998 Volume: 14, Pages: 62 – 73

Frank, Jack and Eibhlín Dubh: The Lament for Art O’Leary

Caoineadh Áirt Úi Laoghaire (The Lament for Art O’Leary) is a classic work of Irish literature. Composed as a keen by his widow, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonail (Dark Eileen O’Connell, pronounced Eileen Duv), in the immediate aftermath of his death in 1773, it survived in oral tradition until it was finally collected from an aged professional keener in Millstreet and written down about 1800. Here are the opening lines in Irish followed by Frank O’Connor’s translation. (For those who would like to read the full text in Irish, you can find it here, with a translation by Thomas Kinsella.)

Mo ghrá go daingean tu!

Lá dá bhfaca thu

ag ceann tí an mhargaidh,

thug mo shúil aire dhuit,

thug mo chroí taitnearnh duit,

d’éalaíos óm charaid leat

i bhfad ó bhaile leat.

Keening was a women’s prerogative and tradition, and this keen is powerful and poetic, with long sonorous vowels, patterns of repetitive phrases, and all the devastated grief of a heartbroken woman. To get a sense of the pronunciation in Irish, the best reading I have come across is this one by Joanne Ryan.

The Lament has been translated many times, including by Thomas Kinsella, Brendan Kennelly, Vona Groarke and Eilís Dillon. In 1940, the Cuala Press brought out a special limited edition of the poem, in a translation by Frank O’Connor and with illustrations by Jack B Yeats. The Cuala Press was run by Elizabeth (Lolly) Yeats, sister of Jack B and William B, and was a driving force in the proliferation of printed material, beautifully produced, related to the Irish literary and artistic revival. 

Frank O’Connor (above), although better known for his short stories, was a scholar of the Irish language and translated many poems into English. His version is magnificent, capturing Eibhlín Dubh’s passion and fierceness and the rhythm and cadence of her keen. 

Art O’Leary was a handsome young cavalry officer in the army of Maria Theresa of Austria. He returned to Ireland upon his marriage to Eibhlín and they had two children. She was pregnant with a third (who did not survive) when he was shot dead by Abraham Morris, a local magistrate, when Art refused to sell Morris his horse for £5, as required by the Penal Laws. Art O’Leary is buried at Kilcrea Friary, above. His grave can be seen there (below).

The Lament lauds Art’s many virtues and paints a picture of him as brave and handsome, in the flower of his manhood.

Eibhlín curses Morris, and tells how, when Art’s horse came home alone, she leapt into the saddle to search for him.

She found him lying dead in a pool of blood, which she cupped in her hands and drank.

Jack B Yeats’ illustrations have the same wild quality that we imagine was characteristic of Eibhlín Dubh – an untamed spirit who expressed the extremes of great joy and pride and deep anguish. They are pen and ink drawings, hand coloured at the Cuala Press with light washes in blues, yellows and browns for the limited edition. Very little of Yeats’ illustrative work is included in the current, must-see, exhibition of his paintings in the National Gallery, and I was very pleased indeed to find this book online as part of the Internet Archives digital library.

Ireland 50 Years Ago: Jack B Yeats Special Edition 1

A special edition of Ireland of the Welcomes, July-August 1971, was devoted to Jack B Yeats, in honour of the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Having been intensely moved recently by the National Gallery’s exhibition, Jack B Yeats: Painting and Memory, I was interested to look at how he was viewed in 1971, as part of my Ireland 50 Years Ago series.

The illustrations are all from this issue and sorry – photographing from an old magazine doesn’t guarantee the greatest quality. This post will take us up to the beginning of his career as an expressionist painter, after he honed his drawing and watercolour skills and started to exhibit. This part of Yeats’ work is not really covered in the National Gallery Exhibition, which is almost entirely devoted to his oil paintings and is organised thematically rather than chronologically.

Island Funeral, rendered in the magazine in black and white

The long article is by Roger McHugh, based on his Introduction to the Dolmen Press book Jack B Yeats, A Centenary Gathering. Roger McHugh was himself an esteemed academic at UCC, a writer, playwright and critic, an ardent republican, and according to his bio in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, ‘an enthralling dinner-table raconteur.’ His analysis is insightful and evocative. I will simply use his words after the poem by MacDonagh and through the rest of the post, indicated by italics.

The article begins with a poem by Donagh MacDonagh (an equally  erudite man with an impressive literary and nationalist pedigree) which I will quote in full as it expresses wonderfully what it is to look at a Yeats painting.

Love of the dusty rose 

Blooming above the Square 

Lights the whole studio 

And singer, fisher, clown, 

Horseman and Saddled Horse

Surge through the winter air

Razing the years and the walls 

For the wild man of the fair

To snatch the wagered purse

And bring the champion down.

The women by Liffey side,

The pig-buyer home from the fair,

The horse taking time in its stride

Are dead, with the big-muscled men

Who bullied their way into sight

And froze in an arrogant stare;

But they and the sailors of Sligo

Are bright in a memory where

Colour condenses in light

And the starved rose blushes again.

Donagh MacDonagh

Create? The painter had his reservations: ‘No one creates’, he wrote; ‘the artist assembles memories’. By this I think he meant that the intense moment is always already past but that observation, memory and technique can recapture it. . . He thought that ‘painting was the freest and greatest means of communication we have’ and that the finest paintings always had ‘some of the living ginger of life in them’.

As a youth in Sligo He preferred to play around the quays and the streets, inspecting with due reverence sea captains, sailors and pilots, or at country fairs and sports observing and sketching small farmers, pig-jobbers, worried shopkeepers, untamed tinkers, shouting ballad singers, exultant jockeys surrounded  by triumphant or sullen wild faces, or the stirring arrivals of Bianconi long cars, of bands, of circuses.

This drawing (also reproduced from Ireland of the Welcomes) is an illustration from Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Read more about Yeats’ and Synge’s collaborations in this post

As a background to these assorted characters was a setting of great variety; cliffs whose wildness was accentuated by the ‘crashing wind and lashing sea’ . . . legended mountains like Ben Bulben and Knocknarea, long reaches of sand sometimes marked ominously by wrecks perhaps dating to the Armada.

Jack B Yeats as painted by his father, John Butler Yeats. I find it uncanny how little his expression changed between this boyhood image and a photograph taken of him as an older man (below)

Even at sixteen he had started his career as a professional illustrator . . . he illustrated school-books, newspapers, periodicals, comic-cuts, racing papers.

Where England gave him many subjects for his illustrations and sketches, Ireland provided almost all those for the drawings and watercolours which he exhibited up to 1911 in Dublin and London. The Painters who exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy at that time were either English or Irish imitators of the Leightons and the Poynters, titled men who set the standard. ‘It was into their varnished world where it was nice to see a bit of Normandy or something from Surrey painted by an Irish artist,’ wrote C. P. Curran, ‘that Jack Yeats broke with his troop of tinkers and maggie-men, jockeys and drovers, pig-jobbers and purse-proud horse dealers, stout farmers and sea-faring men, the whole life of a little western town by the sea. It was very exciting, but was it art?

Following his own lead about the affectionate zest for life that is the basis of artistic achievement, I think that people untutored in technique but with some sensitivity can catch the essential elements of those early works. . . . They depict individuals. . . . but in such a way as to capture some essential quality which lifts the picture above its particulars. A tinker is painted in black garb which is set against the black of rock and the dark sky, relieved by a glimpse of white sea-foam. His wild eyes gleam from a ‘black-avised narrow face; he seems the embodiment of some wild night spirit.

The line-drawing of the squireen, bowler-hatted, gloomily assertive, owes much to the sharp, sure vertical lines of his coat and umbrella set against the curve of road, wall and mountain.

The next post will take us through his life as the greatest of Irish painters. Here’s a sample image from the article.

Remembering Maeve

We spent yesterday afternoon at the Echoes Festival in Dalkey, a celebration of the life and work of Maeve Binchy and her impact on Irish writing. Maeve, who died in 2012, was universally beloved, and nowhere more so than in my house. You see, Maeve was a great friend to my mother, the writer Lilian Roberts Finlay (that’s the two of them, above at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival). As a writer, Lilian was nowhere near as successful as Maeve but that didn’t matter to Maeve. She was supportive and generous and encouraging and caring: when we cleaned out Lilian’s house we found notes and cards from Maeve, always cheerful and positive. 

Lilian and Maeve shared a stage at the Vancouver Writer’s Festival in 1998 and I think every Irish person in Vancouver was at their talk, including a huge contingent from the Irish Women’s Network. It was a great success – Lilian (below) was a superb reader of her own stories (that time in the Abbey School of Acting had not been wasted) and Maeve was, well, wonderful. 

Maeve and Gordon invited Lilian and me to lunch with them at their hotel – this lunch will live in my memory forever because it confirmed what everyone always says about Maeve: she was, in person, exactly as you imagine her to be – kind, funny, fascinating, witty and incredibly warm. She and Gordon were sweet and loving with each other, with lots of banter to make us all laugh and keep the talk flowing. Because we proudly claim Maeve for Ireland, we forget that the rest of the world loved her too and often read her in translation. Maeve was huge in North America – here’s the photo by Derek Speirs that accompanied her obit in the New York Times.

The Echoes Festival afternoon we attended was a forceful reminder of what a powerhouse Maeve was in Irish writing. The discussions were wide-ranging and focused on her influence on contemporary novel-writing – her insistence on using her own voice, on being authentically Irish and never pandering to those who might not understand our idiom, on allowing Irish girls and women to see their own lives on the page. 

Moderator Caroline Erskine with Turtle Bunbury, Rachael English, Caelainn Hogan and Phil Mullen

Phil Mullen read her own story about stealing the pennies for the Black Babies, and we all nodded along in recognition, even as were were appalled at her treatment in the industrial school where she grew up. A lighter note was struck by Maeve’s cousin, Gillian Binchy, about her Communion Dress – a story worthy of Maeve herself.  

Maeve wrote for and about women (write what you know was one of her mantras, a maxim she spun into very funny anecdotes about not writing about orgies) and one of the sessions fittingly took shape around the secrets and shame faced by Irish women in the 20th century. 

At Echoes in 2017, Margaret Kelleher, UCD professor of Anglo-Irish literature and drama, said that close study of Binchy’s writing suggests she will be regarded as a “key witness and chronicler of Irish life in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the next”.

YOU STILL CAN’T HOPE FOR BETTER COMPany than maeve binchy
by Henrietta Mckervey, irish INDEPENDENT
Róisín Ingle (left) moderated a discussion with (l to r) Sarah Maria Griffin, Anna Carey and Chris Binchy

All the speakers, writers, readers and moderators were excellent. We’re already planning to attend the full event next year. And – can we say – this was our first live-audience indoor event in almost two years. Tickets were limited to ensure social distancing, and we wore masks throughout, but oh my goodness how great it felt to be part of a live event again!

Seaweed and Sealing Wax

Finola has been involved in the Ellen Hutchins Festival since it began in 2015 – the 200th anniversary of the death of Ireland’s first female botanist. This year she was asked to help organise and MC an outdoor event, and has had a very busy time – together with her collaborators – leading up to this. On the day – last Friday – I went along to see the culmination of their hard work, and I thought I would share the experience with you.

The weather forecast for that day was atrocious! Heavy rain and thunderstorms were predicted for the duration, and we set out for Ballylickey with some trepidation. However, as is often the case in West Cork, the weather forecasters were confounded. Nevertheless, the Festival team had prepared for all eventualities and we arrived in time to contribute to the setting up of a shelter made from a silk parachute and a number of wooden poles. The transformation of an empty area of lawn in the gardens of Seaview House Hotel into an impressive performance space in a very short time was quite remarkable – and a visual treat – as the swirling mass of silk was tamed by our team, directed by Seán Maskey.

Watching (and, indeed, participating) in this constructional triumph, I was taken back to the days when I lived in Cornwall and followed the escapades of two theatre groups there: Kneehigh Theatre and Footsbarn. Both started out as small troupes of travelling players who took their performance spaces with them and incorporated the action of creating and erecting their transitory auditoria into their shows: all part of the visual entertainment. Both those groups have evolved and travelled far away from their roots, but the evanescent nature of their early shows has stayed with me, to be pleasantly awakened by the happenings at Ballylickey.

To see where Ballylickey fits in to the story of Ellen Hutchins, have a look at Finola’s post from 2015. Ellen was born in 1785 in Ballylickey House and lived much of her short life there. Seaview House – now the Hotel – was built partly in the grounds of the Hutchins family home, so it is a fitting venue for Festival events, as we know that we are following her own footsteps as she became interested in the world of plants and seaweeds which she discovered all around her as she was growing up.

. . . Ellen was a pioneering botanist who specialised in a difficult branch of botany, that of the non-flowering plants or cryptogams. She discovered many plants new to science and made a significant contribution to the understanding of these plants. She was highly respected by her fellow botanists and many named plants after her in recognition of her scientific achievements.In addition to being an outstanding scientist, Ellen was also a talented botanical artist. Botanical drawings serve science in a very important way . . .

Ellenhutchins.com

That’s Finola (above) introducing the subject of the day: the correspondence that passed between Ellen and Dawson Turner of Yarmouth, Norfolk, who had become a recognised authority on botany in early 19th century Britain, even though this was always a leisure pursuit: professionally he worked for his father, who was head of Gurney and Turner’s Yarmouth Bank and took over his role on his death. Dawson wrote numerous books on plants and got to know the leading botanists of the day, including Ellen. Amazingly, one hundred and twenty letters between her and Dawson survive. Those from Dawson Turner to Ellen are held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and those from Ellen to Turner are at Trinity College Cambridge. Friday’s event was a reading of a selection of these letters. On Finola’s right, above, is Karen Minihan, an actor and drama director who lives in Schull: she read the letters from Ellen. Moreover, it was she who selected and organised the extracts – which were the heart of the performance.

Above are the two other performers: on the right is Mark O’Mahony from Cappaghglass – he is a part-time actor, and here he reads the letters from Dawson. On his right is Carrie O’Flynn. She is a historic re-enactor and researcher: she appeared as Ellen, in authentic period dress, and provided really illuminating interpolations between letter-readings, informing us about the act of letter-writing itself in the early 1800s – the ink and quill pens; the postal service; Ellen’s probable appearance and dress (there are no surviving portraits of her) and the difficulties which Ellen would have had to face in pursuing here chosen interests, especially as she was herself quite frail and was for many years the carer of her own mother. Her achievements in the light of all this are truly remarkable, and Carrie succeeded in bringing this out with her contributions. Below she shows us the brass microscope that Ellen used – an essential item of equipment for her work.

As the reading of the letters progressed it became gradually obvious that a deep friendship was developing between the two botanists, and the language reflected this. Particularly telling (and this was drawn out in the selection of the letters) was the way the missives were framed as time went on. From a simple, almost curt formality in the earliest, we begin to read how their shared interests extended beyond the botanical; they exchange newly discovered poetry; Dawson tells Ellen that he has named his newly-born daughter after her; they imagine how they would like to meet each other and walk their favourite landscapes together. Each sends the other packages containing examples of the plants and seaweeds that preoccupy them, and their greetings at the top and tail of every page become increasingly warmer. We, the audience, open our imaginations as to how a happy fulfilment could ever metamorphose – West Cork and Norfolk are as far apart as any two place could be in early 19th century Britain. Poignantly, we learn that they never met: Ellen – always in poor health – died in 1815 at the age of twenty nine. We can only imagine that Dawson, remote in Norfolk, was desolate.

Important to our day – apart from the presenters and actors – were Madeline Hutchins (above – showing us some of Ellen’s drawings of seaweed), great great grand-niece and a co-founder of the Festival; and – behind the scenes but essential – the team, including Clare Heardman, co-founder of the Festival and a Conservation Ranger at the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Here’s Clare in action setting everything up – and running the Festival shop:

We had a further treat in store for us after the show: we were taken on a guided tour of some of the environments which Ellen would have known and explored during her life at Ballylickey. This felt really special, and brought us close, again, to the extraordinary young woman whose short but productive life we now celebrate here in West Cork.

Please note that Ballylickey House today is private property, and visitors should not seek access. There is plenty of the natural environment that Ellen would have been familiar with around Ballylickey and on the shores of Bantry Bay – well worth an exploration. And this link to the Ellen Hutchins Audio Trail is invaluable, especially to anyone who was not able to be at Friday’s event.

Particular thanks, of course, to all who participated – and attended – the event. It was a great success! Thank you to the weather Gods. And many thanks to Seaview House Hotel for providing the venue