Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original.

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the house burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original

In West Cork, we have been celebrating the short but extraordinary life of Ellen Hutchins who died 200 years ago this year. Acknowledged in her lifetime as one of the most knowledgeable and accomplished botanists in the British Isles, she contributed specimens and drawings to the great collections in Glasnevin and Kew and kept up a lively and learned correspondence with some of the leading botanical scientists of the day. When she died, aged only 29, her name had already been memorialised: several plant specimens bore the title hutchinsia.

Looks and character

It’s been a fantastic week of lectures, guided walks, exhibitions and demonstrations. Jointly organised by the Bantry Historical Society, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Hutchins family, the week has been a marvellous success, with all the events well attended and everyone eager to learn more about Ellen. For a program of what was available, take a look at the excellent Ellen Hutchins website and the Facebook page.

Dublin Botanic Gardens

While many of Ellen’s specimens ended up in Kew Gardens, some went to what has become the Dublin Botanical Gardens

The website contains biographical data about Ellen, her accomplishments, her family and her place in the scientific community, and a links and resources section leading to much more information. Ellen Hutchins was born in Ballylickey, near Bantry, in 1785 and spent most of her life there. During schooldays in Dublin she lived with family friend Dr Whitley Stokes who introduced her to the discipline of botanizing. She became an avid and scholarly collector of plants and seaweed, annotating, sorting and cataloguing as she went, and an expert illustrator of marine and terrestrial specimens.

Ellen identified new species of seaweeds on the shores around Bantry Bay

She roamed freely around the shores of Bantry Bay and took her family’s boat out to Whiddy Island. She also climbed (we’re not sure how) to the top of Knockboy, the highest mountain in Cork at 700m, identifying new species of plants right at the top. We followed her footsteps last weekend, led by Wildlife Officer Clare Heardman of Glengarriff Nature Reserve, botanist Rory Hodd, writer Kevin Corcoran, and Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece of Ellen, who has been uncovering all kinds of new material on her ancestor.

group botany

What a day we had! It was warm and dry until we got to the top, where we were subjected to a hailstorm for form’s sake before the sun re-emerged. It was an insight into what gets botanists excited – tiny plants, apparently, with subtle variations from other tiny plants.

We were in awe of the knowledge on display, and the boundless enthusiasm of all the plant experts in the group. The highlights for them were finding some of the species that bore Ellen’s name, although Rory and Clare were particularly pleased to find a dwarf willow at the summit that had originally been identified by Ellen over 200 years ago. Along the way, we also learned a lot about the characteristics of that kind of high mountain environment, with its burden of boggy moss and highly acidic environment.

Kevin Corcoran demonstrated the properties of sphagnum moss, and showed us how soft the bog underneath us was, by probing with his staff

Knockboy descent

We felt on top of the world on Knockboy. We drove up to Priest’s Leap and only climbed the final 300m.  But how did Ellen get up there, with her long skirts and her intermittent poor health?

In Bantry House we viewed Ellen’s drawings, beautifully framed and presented and on loan from their permanent homes in Kew Gardens, Trinity College, Dublin and elsewhere. Her drawings were used by other botanists to illustrate books and were considered to be superior in their exactitude.

The Bantry Library hosted an exhibition about her life. This was curated by Madeline Hutchins and here we came closer to appreciating the woman herself, of whom no portrait exists. We learned, through her letters, of the struggles of a home life dominated by an ailing mother, a disabled younger brother and two bitterly feuding older brothers. She suffered from intermittent ill health, which often prevented her from collecting, but when she was strong her delight in her outdoors pursuits was palpable. One of her greatest pleasures was her correspondence with fellow botanists, among whom she earned true respect, especially Dawson Turner.

Dawson Turner

Dawson Turner: Although they never met, he thought of Ellen as a beloved sister and was devastated when she died

Although we were not able to join the group tour of the Ardnagashel Arboretum, we ventured down there on our own and were shown around the east section by the gracious Arethusa Greacen, herself a Hutchins on her mother’s side. The arboretum was started by Ellen’s brother and was maintained and added to by succeeding generations of Hutchins – the botany gene was obviously strongly embedded in the family!

Myrtle Woods Path

Ardnagashel colourMyrtle groves and colour at Ardnagashel

The enormous contribution made by Ellen Hutchins to science has languished in obscurity for two centuries, known only to a few experts in the field (a bit like that other West Cork woman of science, Agnes Clerke of Skibbereen). All that changed last week. West Cork, and Bantry/Ballylickey in particular, has celebrated and honoured Ellen Hutchins in style. There is talk of future events, perhaps even a summer school.

Ellen Plaque

A new plaque has been erected on the wall of the old ruined church in Garryvurcha graveyard, final resting place of Ellen Hutchins

Well done to the hardworking organisers of this exceptional festival! Thank you to them for illuminating the life of this remarkable woman and to helping us appreciate, in the most hands-on and interesting way, her enormous contributions to science.

Madeline Clare Angela

The team behind the Ellen Hutchins Two Hundred Year Celebration: Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece and biographer of Ellen; Clare Heardman of the National Parks and Wildlife Service; Angela O’Donovan of the Bantry Historical Society. This photo was taken from the Ellen Hutchins 200 Years Facebook Page, with appreciation

Don’t forget to check out the website Ellen Hutchins: Ireland’s First Female Botanist for so much more detail than I could give you in a blog post.

Family-Friendly Archaeology

Dramatic Skies over Maughanasilly Stone Row

Dramatic Skies over Maughanasilly Stone Row

West Cork is crammed with prehistoric monuments but many are not really accessible for all family members because of the terrain. Others are on private land where the landowner is reluctant to grant permission, or where frisky bullocks make traversing a field a bit risky. So we’ve done some homework on easy-to-reach sites and planned a route for you in which you can have a) a Grand Day Out and b) a tour through some of the best West Cork Bronze Age sites and one Medieval Castle.

The Kealkill complex: one of the sites you'll visit today

The Kealkill complex: one of the sites you’ll visit today

Load the kids and Grandma into the car, stick Discovery Map 85 in your pocket (or use the one we’ve provided in this post), wear boots or wellies, and off you go! By the way, we strongly advise leaving the dog at home when on a field trip like this. If you must bring him, please keep him on a leash, since you will be on private farmland at each site except Carriganass.

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Oh – and the frisky cattle? Keep an eye out – they weren’t around when we did our reconnaisance but you never know when that can change. These two photos are by Amanda Clarke, used with permission.

Kealkill Monuments

Our starting point is Ballylicky – here’s your opportunity to pick up a picnic at the marvellous Manning’s Emporium. And if you like your day today, consider signing up for one of their Culture Kitchen tours – an innovative mix of history, prehistory and artisan food that will lead you still further into the prehistoric (and culinary) hinterland of West Cork.

Mill Little Group of Munuments

Mill Little Group of Monuments

1. Mill Little Complex

From Ballylicky, head west along the scenic seaside road towards Glengarriff for a couple of kilometres and take the first turn right at Snave. You’ll be following the Coomhola Rive as it tumbles down between high hills. Once you’ve crossed Snave Bridge continue for about a km, take the second left and then immediately right. One km on, take a left and then the next right. Park along here and the Mill Little complex is in a field on the left.

Stone Pair

Stone Pair

This is a complicated site, comprising a stone pair (don’t be confused by the other stones around the pair, which have been piled here), three boulder burials, and a small five-stone circle. All these monuments probably date from around the same time – the Bronze Age, about three to four thousand years ago. A particular feature of West Cork archaeology is that boulder burials, standing stones (single, in pairs, or in rows) and stone circles are often found together. Stone circles and stone rows are oriented towards significant solar events, such as the rising solstice sun or the setting sun at an equinox. At a site like this, it is possible that all the features formed a large observational arena, with the stone row, boulder burial and stone circle providing multiple alignment possibilities and marking both solar and lunar events.

Boulder burial showing support stones. Five-stone circle in the background

Boulder burial showing support stones. Five-stone circle in the background

The boulder burial nearest the stone circle is the most classic in appearance – a large glacial erratic sitting on top of three support stones. Excavations at boulder burials in West Cork, however, haven’t really yielded evidence of actual burials – perhaps the term is a misnomer!

Three boulder burials at Mill Little

Three boulder burials at Mill Little

2. Carriganass Castle

Retrace your steps back towards Ballylicky and take the road to Kealkill – or try an overland route using the map. At Kealkill take the left fork signposted to Gougane Barra and you will see Carriganass Castle almost right away.

Carriganass Castle

Carriganass is an excellent example of the medieval tower house – take a look at this post for more about these structures in West Cork. There’s easy parking around the back and lots of explanatory signs around the castle. This is a good place for a picnic, or you can wait until after you’ve been to Maughanasilly, since you will come back this way. If it’s a hot day (don’t laugh – it can happen!) the kids will enjoy a dip in the river here. There are also some looped walks starting from here – mark them for a future expore.

3. Maughanasilly Stone Row

Continue past the back of the castle. At the first junction take the left fork and continue until you see a small lake on your left. Shortly after you will come to a cross roads. Turn right and park – the stone row is in the field on your right.

Maughanasilly Stone row. Note the row forms a slight arc

Maughanasilly Stone row. Note the row forms a slight arc

This is a good example of a multiple stone row and occupies a very dramatic setting on a knoll overlooking the lake. Note that, instead of being straight, the stones form a slight arc. This is deliberate, as is the placement of the stone lying flat on the ground. According to one expert, this stone “is placed so that anyone walking up to it and standing with toes touching its edge is looking straight at the equinox.” This stone row also appears to have been an important one for lunar observations. It takes the moon over 18 years to complete its cycle and from this site observations of the lunar maximums (the most extreme northerly and southerly moonrises) were likely made.

The stone row with recumbent stone

The stone row with recumbent stone

Ponder on the sophistication of our Bronze-Age ancestors: much of the knowledge they built up so that they could keep track of time and seasons had to be re-learned by later people.

Maughanasilly Stone row  - a lunar observatory?

Maughanasilly Stone row – a lunar observatory?

4. Kealkill Stone Circle

Back you go to Carriganass (picnic now, if you haven’t done so already) and on to the village of Kealkill – a pretty and well-kept village (and home to a famous St Patrick’s Day parade). The stone circle is signposted from the village – just follow the steep and winding road that runs up from the church. After a sharp bend to the right, take the first left turn. There’s enough room to park at a small pull-out. The walk across the field to the circle is invariably muddy and squelchy so make sure to wear your boots here.

Kealkill standing stone pair, stone circle and radial cairn

Kealkill standing stone pair, stone circle and radial cairn

This is yet another complicated site. There is a standing stone pair, a five-stone circle and a radial cairn. But perhaps the first thing you will notice is the spectacular view. From this spot you can see all the way down the spine of both the Sheep’s Head and the Beara Peninsula to the South-West, and across the valley to the Shehy Range to the North and East.

From the Kealkill Site

From the Kealkill Site

One of the stone pair is over 4m high. But it’s broken – and may originally have stood over 6m high.  Imagine the difficulty of erecting this!

The first thing you notice - that standing stone!

The first thing you notice – that standing stone!

The radial cairn is a mysterious monument – nobody is quite sure of its function – and relatively rare. Once again, these cairns are often found in conjunction with other monuments – stone alignments or stone circles. This one was excavated, but nothing conclusive was found to help determine its function. Note the small upright projecting stones that look like the face of a clock among the cairn stones.

Kealkill radial cairn

Kealkill radial cairn

5. Breeny More Stone Circle and Boulder Burials

This is just a little way up from the Kealkill circle and on the other side of the road. We haven’t had time to visit it properly yet, so my photograph was taken from near the road. There’s a multiple stone circle here, with four boulder burials within it. There’s not much left of the stone circle, but the portal stones and recumbent remain, so the alignment can be discerned. The boulder burials are laid out in square formation in the centre – a very unusual occurrence, since boulder burials are normally outside the circle. The site is on a natural ridge, with similar spectacular views to the Kealkill Stone Circle. One writer has speculated that if trees were removed it would be possible to see the tall standing stone at Kealkill from this site.

Breeny More complex from the road

Breeny More complex from the road

We hope you enjoy your day! Let us know how you got on.