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

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.