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

Gardens at Kilquade

Wicklow is the Garden County of Ireland. Whenever we visit, we are impressed by the exuberance of the verdant landscapes and woodlands, and outstanding gardens abound. Do you remember our exploration of the Kilruddery Estate a few weeks ago? Here’s another venue well worth a visit: Kilquade Arboretum, formerly the ‘National Garden Exhibition Centre’. The modest 5.2 acre site is billed as the perfect escape from the stresses of everyday life – and rightly so. Not only can you wander through a collection of inspirational gardens, formal and informal, which were designed by a number of highly experienced horticulturists, but also you can eat and drink in superb outdoor dining settings: everything is well maintained and efficient. And – if you are a gardener yourself – there is a great shop to supply your every need!

As you can see, you never know what might await you as you traverse the grounds, moving from one creative vision to another. At the height of this Irish summer – which is unmatched, so far, in its brilliant weather – you are guaranteed shady nooks and surprises, and plenty of places to rest and contemplate. You will happily spend half a day or more at Kilquade, and come away satisfied in body and mind! Here’s an enigmatic sculpture by Fiona Coffey:

Water is used refreshingly within the gardens – at times you have the feeling of wandering beside a mountain stream; at others you can just find a spot for contemplation by a cool pool.

You can be methodical in your walks through each of the garden areas or you can, like us, wander haphazardly, not taking any particular straight line. If you do this, you are sure to miss something – but that’s good reason for a return visit. We are keen to come back when the autumn is setting in: the colours will be a treat. But we will return before then anyway: the excellent coffee and snacks are calling!

I haven’t mentioned the profuse planting that veers between formal and – as you can see – naturally wild. Finola is particularly pleased to see the latter: she firmly believes that wildflowers have a big part to play, nowadays, in any established garden: have a look at our post on West Cork’s Bantry House Gardens, here. Allowing nature to contribute to established planting schemes will ensure that good habitats evolve to support our pollinators and a balanced eco-system.

One of the things that struck us on our visit to Kilquade was how easy it is to get away from the crowds! We saw others walking through the gardens but we often had each little designed space to ourselves. Possibly the unbelievable (for Ireland) weather (temperatures approaching 30 degrees) meant that many visitors were sweating it out on the beaches. We were calm and cool, and felt safely tucked away from ‘the madding crowd’. All in all, the experience was exceptional.

Wandering the Boreens

One of our goals in writing Roaringwater Journal is to say – Look what we have here! And one of the things we have in abundance in West Cork is a flourishing wildflower population. There is nothing so good for the soul as wandering our boreens and enjoying our amazing floral heritage. This little movie will show you what I mean, although it’s only a tiny selection of the richness. 

Like Lying in the Grass, all the flowers are native, and all photographed within the last two or three weeks in West Cork – that is, late June and early July, 2021. Both posts are a testament to our biodiversity – always under threat. The music is the same, too – Turas go Tír na nÓg by the incomparable Michaeál O’Suilleabháin from his album, Templum, available here.

Here’s the list of all the flowers in the video:

Foxglove – title slide +2

Ragged Robin X2

Sheep’s-bit (the blue one) X3

Oxeye Daisy and Common Vetch

Cat’s-ear, Oxeye Daisy, Bedstraw

Mostly Cat’s-ear

Dog-rose X3

Field-rose X2

Blackberry X2

Tutsan (a type of St John’s-wort) X3

Tufted Vetch (blue) and Meadow Vetchling (yellow)

Tufted Vetch X2

Honeysuckle X2

Hedge Woundwort X2

Purple Loosestrife X2

Foxglove and Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet X2

Wild Strawberry (consumed after photograph taken)

Upright Hedge-parsley X2

Hedge Bindweed (white)

Field Bindweed (pink and white)

Chamomile X2

Common Centaury X2

Oxeye Daisy

Ringlet Butterfly

Bell Heather X2

Spear Thistle and Fuchsia (Fuchsia is not native) X2

Long Island Wildflower Walk

Tracy and Peter Collins are the charming and enterprising couple behind Castaway Wild Island Camping on Long Island in West Cork. When they asked us if we’d like to help with a collaborative island adventure we jumped at the chance to lead a wildflower walk.

But who knew there would be such a demand? Our first date (yesterday) filled up overnight with a waiting list, so we put on a second and it filled from the waiting list! 

People are hungry, it seems, for experiences like this – and who can blame anyone for wanting to spend time on Long Island! We’ve been there several times and we know that the place, as my mother used to say, is Falling Down with Wildflowers. And so, yesterday, we met with our first group – and what a lovely and talented bunch of people it turned out to be, including an archaeologist, a fish biologist, an ecologist, a professor of Pharmaceutics, teachers, fellow-blogger Amanda from Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry, and an assortment of Long Island and wildflower lovers.

We started off at East House, home of Castaway Wild Island Camping for coffee and possibly the most delicious biscuits I’ve ever tasted, and then started our walk westward along the spine of the island, stopping as we went to talk about the habitats we were passing through, and the different flowers that had successfully adapted to those habitats. Hedgebank, field margins, stone walls and rock faces, old gardens – all carry their own assortment of plants.

From the top: Cat’s-ear and Sheep’s-bit on a hedgebank; close up of Sheep’s-bit; English Stonecrop, Navelwort and lichen on rock face

I never thought I would be blasé about orchids, but there are so  many at this time of year on Long Island that we soon ceased to stop and exclaim over each new group (below). Mark, the ecologist, was very knowledgeable about plants and pointed out the presence of Yellow Rattle, something that’s quite hard to find in the wild in West Cork but really important for creating good conditions for a wildflower meadow.

An island man, Joe Whooley, lovingly maintains the well at Cuas na Gualainne (the Little Inlet of the Shoulders – a reference, we think, to the shape of the tiny bay) and it was looking even better than the last time we were there. Amanda shared her knowledge of holy wells in general and told us about this one in particular. She’s not sure what the source of the holiness is, but is investigating. Meanwhile, the water was found to be clear and tasty. 

Reaching the Westlands pier, we concentrated on a whole new habitat, one in which marine-adapted plants flourish in what looks like unpromising conditions of shingle and bare rock.

From the top: a colourful patch of Kidney Vetch (pink), Sea Campion (white) and Bird’s-foot Trefoil (yellow); the delicate white flower of Sea Sandwort

And here was one of the prizes – the Yellow Horned-poppy. It’s rare – classed as near threatened in the Red Data List of Vascular Plants – and strikingly beautiful. It’s wonderful to see a flourishing community of this exotic-looking flower on Long Island and I was thrilled to find some blooming already as I thought we might be too early for them.

From the top: Teresa and Amanda with one of the poppies: a poppy close-up

After a while exploring the shingle beach and the sandy beach we were all ravenous and like magic Tracy and Peter appeared with a fabulous lunch box for everyone. Home-made everything, some of it from their own garden (chocolate-dipped strawberries!) and delicious lemonade.

Tracy and Peter and the superb lunch

Mark gave us an impromptu talk on the island environment, reminding us all it was an essentially man-made habitat, and on the importance of this coastal strip of south west Ireland for so much flora and fauna. A possible future national park? That’s a huge YES from us!

From the top: The Royal Fern – the spore-bearing fronds are starting to appear – this species is an indicator of a healthy environment and Mark told us it is getting to be quite rare in some parts of Europe and needs protection; Rock Sea-spurrey – a beautiful and tiny pink flower that likes to grow on rocks by the sea

Well fuelled, we made our way back to the ferry. The chat was mighty along the way, with old friends catching up and new friendships being forged. 

We’ll be doing it again next Saturday – all full up already, so sorry. But why not go on a do-it-yourself wildflower ramble on Long Island any time? Check the ferry schedule, pick up a copy of Zoe Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland (she’s just brought out a new edition – the best and easiest way to teach yourself how to wildflower)  and treat yourself to a day in Paradise! Better still – book in with Castaway Wild Island Camping for a true island adventure.

Lying In The Grass

It’s one of my favourite things to do, as soon as the wildflowers in my garden start to bloom. These are the early ones – there will be a different set in June and July, although some, such as the Bird’s-foot Trefoil, will persist. All but one of one of these wildflowers is native to West Cork, all have volunteered in my garden, and all have been photographed in the last week. You have to lie down in the grass to see many of them (tiny!), or to see the detail on the flower – but I have done all the work for you so make a cup of tea, settle back, and just enjoy!

The music is by the incomparable, late Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and is titled Turas Go Tír Na nÓg (Journey to the Land of Youth) – Go raibh maith agat, a Mhícheál, agus suaimhneas síoraí.

A plant list follows, in the order in which they are presented. 

Ribwort Plantain (Title slide)

Creeping Buttercup X 2

Common Mouse-ear

Common Milkwort X 3

Common Milkwort, white form

Dandelion clock 

Cat’s-ear X 3 (much more common in my garden than Dandelions)

Yellow Pimpernel X 2

Common Dog-violet X 2

Grasses

Daisies

Thyme-leaved Speedwell and Daisies X 2

Thyme-leaved Speedwell closeup

Daisies

Red Clover

White Clover

Herb-Robert

Cat’s-ear and Scarlet Pimpernel

Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil X 3

Keeled-fruited Cornsalad X 2

Common Sorrel X 3

Ivy-leaved Speedwell* X 2

Marsh Thistle X 2 (Why I don’t do this barefoot)

Lousewort

Common Vetch X 2

Ground-ivy X 2

Common Blue Butterfly

Speedwell (thyme-leaved?)

Cut-leaved Crane’s-bill X 2

*Ivy-leaved Speedwell is thought to be an introduced species

World Wetlands Day: A West Cork Bog Soak

In honour of World Wetlands Day, which we celebrate on Feb 2 every year, here is a selection of beautiful, weird and wonderful native plants from one small bog soak in West Cork.

Bogs are unique environments, highly acidic and with low nutrients. Nevertheless, some plants have adapted to thrive in them. It’s important we safeguard these diminishing natural habitats.