By Madeline Hutchins
The Ellen Hutchins Festival, held in the Bantry area during Heritage Week in August, provided an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Ellen Hutchins, Ireland’s first female botanist, who studied seaweeds and lichens round Bantry Bay in the early 1800s.
Opening with a fascinating Seaweed Event on Whiddy Island, which was greatly enjoyed by those attending and will be repeated next year, the session was run by marine biologist, Susan Steele, who featured in West Cork People in September. Susan was an enthusiastic guide, becoming very excited by the vast range of species of seaweed and sea creatures to be found on one single rock, the size of a plate. Susan identified sea worms and a tiny baby starfish. She also demonstrated how to identify one particular seaweed by holding either end and seeing if it hung down like washing on the line.
The seaweeds were brought into the marquee for identification. Susan demonstrated how to create specimens (dried plants on paper) by floating the seaweed in a tub of sea water, slipping a sheet of paper under, and lifting it out onto the paper, then teasing the seaweed out to lie neatly.
With Susan’s expert guidance and infectious enthusiasm for her subject, the participants will certainly look differently at the seashore from now on and appreciate it more.
Susan explained how at first she had thought Ellen was a fraud or a hoax. Susan’s father studies lichens, and the field guide he was using gave ‘Miss Hutchins of Bantry Bay’ as responsible for finding hundreds of lichens. Both Susan and her father were highly sceptical and did not think that this could be true.
Later Susan found out more about Ellen, including her study of seaweeds and her seven-year correspondence with fellow botanist, Dawson Turner, of Yarmouth in England. The letters captured Susan’s interest and drew her into Ellen’s story. Susan read out a few extracts to the group, including some poignant pieces about Ellen’s ill health. Susan was amazed at the level of specialism that Ellen achieved in her short time studying seaweeds, especially considering that Ellen was almost entirely self taught, working alone, and, as Ellen says in one of her letters, ‘with no one nearer than Dublin to correct her mistakes’. Susan now has enormous admiration and regard for Ellen Hutchins, and her level of expertise on seaweeds, which she says far exceeds her own.
See www.ellenhutchins.com for more information on Ellen Hutchins.