Interview – Ellen Hutchins Festival 2021

Aside from being one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland, Bantry Bay (West Cork) and surrounding area is famous for something else that, more than likely, not enough people know about – it was home to Ellen Hutchins (1785 – 1815), Ireland’s first female botanist, and a significant contributor to her particular field of botany at the time.

Ellen spent a short but formative period of her life in Dublin, where her interest in botany was sparked, but it was when family duties drew her back to her isolated family home in Ballylickey that botany became her life’s calling. She spent a short but prolific number of years exploring her native landscape; discovering, collecting, identifying and preserving a huge number of plants growing in the rich biodiversity of the area. Her area of particular interest was non-flowering plants called cryptogams; specifically seaweeds, lichens, mosses and liverworts. 

The number, and diversity, of plants she discovered and recorded in a then largely unexplored part of Ireland, in botanical terms, was nothing short of extraordinary. She began to share her findings with established botanists, working in and outside of Ireland, and as they began to officially name her discoveries after her, her name became firmly fixed in the history of botany. She gained a reputation as a skilled botanist, with an ability to discover rare plants, and her specimens became highly sought after.

Despite facing a number of obstacles at the time – the restrictions of her gender, ill-health and binding family duties – it was her own determination and perseverance which allowed her to live this remarkable life.

Her legacy consists not only of the discovery and identification of plants; she was also a talented botanical artist, using art as a means of capturing her discoveries in great detail, allowing the botanists she was in communication with an even greater understanding of what she was finding. She also wrote letters to fellow botanists of the time, which extend beyond botanical talk and serve as important historical documents; offering a rich insight into Ellen as a person, and life at the time. 

I first came across this pioneering woman after reading Marianne Lee’s A Quiet Tide, a fictionalised account of Ellen’s life.  After reading the novel I was intrigued and, while researching further, became aware of the festival celebrating her life and legacy.

The Ellen Hutchins Festival takes place in and around Bantry Bay, every year since 2015 (the inaugural festival marking the 200th anniversary of her death). Through a variety of events, including guided walks, art workshops, exhibitions, talks and more, the festival takes Ellen’s story as inspiration to encourage people to discover, and explore, the natural and cultural heritage of Bantry Bay.  

Image of actor in historical dress inspired by the life of Ellen Hutchins, botanist of Bantry Bay, West Cork.

Ahead of this year’s festival, it was an absolute pleasure to speak to Ellen’s great great grandniece Madeline Hutchins, to find out what lies at the heart of this festival.

The Ellen Hutchins festival is now in its 7th year. Can you tell us a bit about how the inaugural festival in 2015 came to be? What, and who, were the driving forces behind it?

The Bantry Historical Society decided to mark the bicentenary of Ellen‘s death (1815/2015) by a talk and Angela O’Donovan from the Society spoke to me, as Hutchins family, about their plan in 2014. My father, who had moved back to Bantry in 2005, aged 90, had been ever so keen to resurrect Ellen’s story and revisit her plant list. He had died in 2013, and I felt a responsibility to tell anyone he would have told about this plan. The emails I sent included one to Clare Heardman, the Conservation Ranger based at Glengarriff Woods. She rightly said it needed to be more than a talk, there should be walks and sessions on botany. My background is in arts management including theatre and events. Before we knew it, the three of us had developed a programme for nine days of activities with two exhibitions, two talks, walks, a boat trip and workshops covering botany and botanical art, during HeritageWeek, in August 2015. We had huge support from Bantry Library, Bantry House, the Tourist Office, and many other venues and individuals, and funding including from the Heritage Council and Cork County Council. 

The 2015 Festival won the Heritage Council’s Hidden Heritage Award, so it seemed sensible to capitalise on that by doing an encore Festival in 2016. At the end of that one, the three of us made the decision that it would be an annual Festival. 

Ellen’s role as a botanist was as observer or collector, later called plant hunter. Her contribution to the understanding of plants came from knowledge of the local area, visiting the different habitats and careful observation and identification of species. A big part of this festival seems to be getting people out, following in Ellens’s footsteps, and discovering the local landscape and plants in more detail for themselves?

Very much so, both within the Festival itself, and through the free leaflets, website materials and publications, the aim is to encourage people to engage with landscape and  botany – particularly the aspects of botany that Ellen studied, which are often overlooked. There are fascinating worlds out there on our doorstep. You are never far from a lichen, or moss in Ireland and they are well worth a closer look. West Cork, specifically the beautiful landscape of inner Bantry Bay, is the perfect place to explore these tiny plants and also seaweeds. 

An important addition to Ellen’s written findings, and carefully made specimens, was the hundreds of drawings she made of seaweeds, capturing in vivid detail her discoveries. Art is not only a means of capturing the world around us, but also a means of viewing and understanding things from a different perspective. Can you tell us a bit about the importance the art workshops play in this festival, and what those attending them can expect?

Ellen was a talented botanical artist. A drawing was the way of showing another botanist what you had found on the beach, and enlargements showed the tiny and all important details of the plant. Botanical art still serves science in this way. And, as you say, art can also be interpretive and aesthetically beautiful. We have always had botanical art and nature art as a key part of the Festival with demonstrations and workshops. We work with two very talented artists, who are also excellent teachers, Shevaun Doherty and Sue van Coppenhagen. This year they are each running online (half day/one day) Zoom workshops painting wildflowers in watercolour. These promise to be a real treat. For Sue’s workshop on Monday 16th, she suggests that you can either paint along or watch and then paint your own picture later. She will also share an exclusive real time video of her painting a picture.

Workshop with Sue van Coppenhagen as opart of Ellen Hutchins Festival 2021

Another important part of Ellen’s legacy was the letters she wrote; an additional source showcasing her knowledge but also an expression of her as a person, and an evident stimulus for her intellect from the isolation of Ballylickey. How will this year’s visitors be learning more about Ellen’s letters?

On Friday 20th August, there’s an event – Ellen and Dawson: Seaweed and Sealing Wax – which is part talk and part reading. It takes place on the lawn of SeaView House Hotel in Ballylickey. Date and place are significant as it features letters written between Ellen Hutchins and fellow botanist, Dawson Turner, in the summer of 1811. The place was part of Ellen’s home garden/grounds and she wrote a long letter to Dawson Turner on 20th August 1811, exactly 210 years ago. Extracts from letters will be read by actors, Karen Minihan and Mark O’Mahony, and historical re-enactor Carrie O’Flynn will be in costume with props from the period and explaining letter writing and other aspects of Ellen’s life and world. It’s a great chance to live through a slice of Ellen’s life and hear more of her story in her words. We are filming it and are going to do an online version later in the year. 

You must have many memorable moments of meeting visitors to the festival over the years. Have you any such experience that you would like to share with us?

We have had some very special moments, such as taking Cambridge academic, Anne Secord who wrote Ellen’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and her husband, Jim Secord, of the Darwin Correspondence Project, to various sites on the Ellen Hutchins Heritage Trail, including Priest’s Leap, and listening with them to the audio tracks on Ellen’s story in those places that were so significant to her.

Although we seem to be slowly but surely emerging from the restrictions of a difficult year and a half, there are still some guidelines to be adhered to, and a number of your events are online. You describe some of your events as DIY, can you explain why you are using that format?

The theme of Heritage Week this year is getting as many people to enjoy heritage as possible, so we have in-person events, online workshops and self-guided or DIY Festival days. The self-guided or DIY Festival allows you to join in wherever you are, knowing that many others are doing the same as you somewhere else. Each day has a theme – two botanical, one nature-art and one on Ellen’s Letters. A short video will be released on the Festival website in the morning to introduce the theme of the day and give self guided / DIY activity ideas and free resources. Most of these activities can be done wherever you are in Ireland and they won’t sell out as many of the in-person events already have done. 

As a relative of Ellen’s, how has it been for you over these years to see people of all ages and backgrounds seeing inner Bantry Bay through Ellen’s eyes, and appreciating it in new ways?

It’s been wonderful. I live in the U.K. but members of the Hutchins family still live in the same small area round Ballylickey which Ellen loved so much and where she botanised. I’ve visited all my life and have a great affection for the place and its people. Bantry Bay is the co-star in Ellen’s story, it is a very special place for plants, and Ellen delighted in the landscape especially the mountains. I love history, story, art, plants and landscape, so  crafting the Ellen Hutchins Festival each year with Clare Heardman is a delight. Nothing beats hearing people admiring the view, or seeing the look on someone’s face and hearing them exclaim when they see the beautiful tiny details of a seaweed, moss or lichen through a hand lens for the first time. It nearly always is a  ‘Wow’ moment, or something unprintable! 

And lastly, a few parting words from Ellen Hutchins Festival… 

I encourage you to join us one way or another in the Festival activities and explore, enjoy and appreciate an aspect of botany, try botanical or nature art or learn more about Ellen’s story and her world.

***

A big thank you to Madeline for taking the time to talk to me, amidst all the last minute prep leading up to the festival. 

This year’s Ellen Hutchins Festival runs from August 14th – 22nd as part of Heritage Week.

Further details, including the full schedule and information on how to book in for events, can be found at their website.

The website is also jam-packed with information, videos and imagery providing great insights into Ellen’s life and legacy.

All images courtesy of Ellen Hutchins Festival.

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