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

Legends of Mount Gabriel: Fionn, Furrows and Fastnet

The second set of stories about Mount Gabriel (the first set was Legends of Mount Gabriel: The Bottomless Lake) also relate to physical features on the landscape and how they came to be there. Most involve the prowess and deeds of giants, including Fionn MacCumhaill/Finn McCool. Fionn MacCumhaill was the mythical hero/warrior of the Fenian Cycle, a set of stories dating back to the seventh century and added to during the whole of the Early and Later Medieval periods. The stories tell of his boyhood, how he acquired the gift of knowledge, his pursuit of the beautiful Gráinne and her lover Diarmuid, his son Oscar and Oscar’s son, Oisin. Fionn, you must know, is not dead – he merely sleeps and will awake again when somebody sounds his hunting horn, to defend Ireland during her hour of greatest need. 

This image depicts a man stumbling upon the sleeping Fianna in a Donegal cave. It is by Beatrice Elvery and is one of her illustrations for Heroes of the Dawn by Violet Russell, 1914, available at archive.org

But somehow, in popular folklore Fionn, the mighty hero of the ancient sagas, transformed into the giant, Finn McCool, a genial leviathan capable of feats of prodigious strength. All over Ireland places are named for this enormous figure (e.g. Seefin – Finn’s Seat, is the name of several mountains) and tales are handed down about his effect on the landscape. Perhaps the most well-know story is about the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim, but there is hardly a spot in Ireland that doesn’t have similar stories. Mount Gabriel is no exception.

A distant view of the Fastnet Rock and Lighthouse

We’ve already seen one of those stories in The Bottomless Lake in which Fionn took a handful of rock and threw it out into the Atlantic Ocean where it is now as the Fastnet Rock or Carraig Aonair – leaving the hole of Poll an Oighin. That story was from the pen of an unidentified student in the long-abandoned school of Gloun. The student spells it Glaun, it’s identified as Gleann in the School’s Collection and as Glan on OS maps and it’s usually given locally as Gloun. The school is pictured below as it looks now.

The student had more stories about Fionn, arising from the geological formation of Mount Gabriel.

The name of the townland in which I live, and in the which this school is situated, is Glaun. It is in the parish of Schull about three miles from the village in the county of Cork, in the Barony of West Carbery. It is bounded on the north by the Glaun river, on the east by Mount Gabriel, on the south by “Fionn’s Ridge” and on the west by the Lios a Catha river. . .

Fionn’s Ridge separates Glaun from Gubbeen. It is a ridge of rock with seams resembling the furrows made by a plough and it is said that Fionn Mac Cumhail ploughed it with two rams and a wooden plough. Of course it is only a story as the surface was torn off by masses of ice moving south to the hollow below leaving the rock bare like a ridge.

A variation on this story is given by another student, also unnamed, in Schull.

Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s Ridge

There is a curious formation of rock at the western side of Mount Gabriel. It resembles a furrow ploughed into the rock. It is called Fionn’s Ridge. The people of the locality say that it was Fionn Mac Cumhaill ploughed this furrow with two goats.

When we moved here first we met local electrician and theatre scholar, Ger Minihane. At the time we were trying to track down a cup-marked stone in the townland of Derreennatra and having no luck. But Ger told us where to find it – in his own garden! And he told us the legend of how it got there, thrown from the top of Mount Gabriel by Fionn MacCumhaill, a story passed down through the generations in his family.

Was this the coat hook of the anonymous student at Gloun School?

While many of the stories of rocks hurled from Mount Gabriel (more on those another time) refer generically to the actions of ‘giants’, local people understand that it was Fionn MacCumhaill himself that was doing the hurling and his name has become strongly associated with the mountain. During the Millennium celebrations a group in Schull took on the task of creating colourful street theatre to honour those legends and we are fortunate that a record remains of what must have been the most fun, engaging and dramatic events ever to happen in Schull – including the image used as my lead photograph of Fionn striding through Schull*. This movie documents the planning and effort that went into The Battle of Murrahin, which pitted the O’Mahony clan against their ancient rivals, the O’Driscolls. Towards the end of the video we meet up with Fionn.

The story that is told in this re-enactment is the local one that the Fastnet rock originated when Fionn threw a rock from Mount Gabriel into the sea, where it settled and became An Carraig Aonair, The Lone Rock. However, the group’s research also showed up an old Irish name for it which translates as ‘The Swan of the Jet-black cairn bereft of light in the dark’ and this explains the appearance of the black swan.

Related to the idea of the Fastnet as a swan is this local legend from a Schull student.

There is an old story told among the people about it. It is said that when St Patrick was banishing Paganism out of Ireland the devil was in such a rage that he pulled a piece of rock out of Mount Gabriel and flung it into the Atlantic ocean some miles west of Cape Clear. This lone rock had been many years there and several ships were wrecked on it until close on one hundred years ago a big lighthouse was built on it. This rock was called the Fastnet rock and the lighthouse got the same name. In Irish it is called Carraig Aonair. This lighthouse is situated on one of the greatest trade routes in the world..

It is said that on every May morning the Fastnet Rock leaves its place and sails around Cape Clear and northwards to three rocks called the Bull, Cow and Calf, and returns to the place again before sun-rise.

*Thanks so much to Karen Minihan for providing images and links from SULT Schull, the Millennium projects. Wish I’d been there!