Boulders, Books, Boats and Bogs

I bet you can’t wait for more of me banging on about August in West Cork – so let’s get to it! Our week has involved all of the above, and I resisted the urge to add the word Bryophytes to the title. You’re welcome.

The boulders? Shorthand for Boulder Burials, just one of the ancient monuments we visited this week with Konstanza and Christiana, two of the artists in residence with the Crespo Foundation. They are both from Greece and collaborate on documentary and sound-based projects, and Konstanza is also an archaeologist. It was great fun to introduce them to some of our favourite sites on the Mizen, from rock art to wedge tombs, standing stone and boulder burials. 

And then it was time for the Rare Book Fair, the brainchild of Holgar (below) and Nicola, who run, respectively, Inanna Rare Books and the Antiquity Bookshop and Plant-based Cafe. This is the inaugural fair and it took place out at the luscious Inish Beg Estate. 

We love Inish Beg – nothing beats a good wander in the gardens and woods there – but even though we’ve been there several times, we were unprepared for the sheer magic of just getting to the book fair from the car park, all part of the experience.

Of course we couldn’t come away without a few books, but the best part was just chatting to the booksellers – a passionate and knowledgeable group – and sitting outside sipping a cold drink and leafing through our purchases with other like-minded folk. Bliss!

This book fair has the potential to become a very enjoyable permanent part of the West Cork Festival scene and I hope it does. On to Ballydehob and the annual Boat Gathering, or Cruinniú na mBád. Here’s my account of it in 2017 and in 2019 I had the wonderful experience of travelling in one of the boats with my friend Jack. 

This is just a fantastic community event. The whole village gathers on the quay, there’s music and burgers and the crack is mighty. But it’s the sight of the boats, in full sail, coming up the bay on the rising tide, that is the big draw and takes us back to the days when this was a common sight. 

And talking of boats and Ballydehob, we also took part in Inbhear, a sensory experience featuring the pedalos which used to be a common sight in Ballydehob Bay many years ago. Check out Robert’s post for his account of this – it was lovely.

That leaves us with bogs . . . and the first of these was to attend, in the attractive surrounding of Glebe Gardens in Baltimore, a local production of By the Bog of Cats (above), a play by Marina Carr, loosely based on the Greek tragedy of Medea. This is a powerful, multi-layered and haunting story of betrayal, abandonment, longing and revenge. It debuted in the Abbey Theatre in 1998 and has had many international productions (think Broadway and West End) since then. The Director, Terri Leiber, elicited outstanding performances from her cast, and the standing ovation at the end of the evening was well-deserved.

And the second bog? That was today, and although not the first event of the Ellen Hutchins Festival, it was the one that kicked it off for Robert, me and my sister, Aoibhinn, visiting from Dublin. Led by eminent botanist Rory Hodd, and provided with hand lenses, we tramped over the high land above Bantry, on a quest to understand more about heathland and boggy environments.

Rory is an acknowledged expert in this area, and it’s a real privilege to be on a walk with him. He knows everything, but manages to make it all accessible to the layperson. He explained how mosses, bryophytes, lichens, heathers and other plants interact to form the complex ecosystem that make up heathland and bogs.

I now know that ‘sedges have edges’ is not a reliable rule of thumb, and that the Purple Moor-grass that almost defines the winter bog landscape in West Cork (called Fionnán, or blond grass) actually decreases bio-diversity, and that one handful of plants can contain several different species of mosses (including invasive ones from New Zealand!) and liverworts!

And all of this in the most glorious landscape, with a view down all three peninsulas, the Mizen, Sheep’s Head, and the Beara, with a prehistoric wedge tomb at one of the high points (along with Ireland’s most unsympathetically located electricity pole) just to add some non-botanical interest.

The Ellen Hutchins Festival continues all week, and you can still get tickets to many events. The one I play a part in, as MC, is on Friday. It’s called Seaweed and Sealing Wax 2, and it charts the correspondence between Ellen and Dawson Turner, continuing from Part 1 last year. It’s free but you have to register. Hope to see you there – come and say hello.

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.