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Ellen Hutchins - a pioneering naturalist

Over the past year and a half, Knowledge Gatherer Jane Sheehan has been researching Iveragh’s pioneer marine biologist Maude Delap. The project aims to not only fill knowledge gaps surrounding Maude Delap, but to share and honour her scientific legacy while promoting the natural and cultural heritage of Iveragh. There is a need to celebrate women in science and this has been prevalent throughout the project. Though a century separates them, many similarities can be seen between Maude Delap and another Irish female pioneer – Ellen Hutchins.

Ellen Hutchins Festival:

Ellen Hutchins is recognised as Ireland’s first female botanist. A pioneering naturalist, Ellen specialised in seaweeds, mosses, lichens and liverworts. Born in 1785 at Ballylickey house, a small estate in Bantry Bay, her gift at identifying species, coupled with her ability to produce finely detailed watercolours and preserve and press specimens, led to Ellen’s success in botany. Her work helped document the flora of West Cork, which was comparatively unknown at the time. She discovered several new species, of which three species of lichen are named after her. Ellen died, aged 29, on 9 February 1815 after a long illness. Though she never published under her own name, Ellen’s legacy was her contribution to the new and developing botanical research of the time. Her remaining archives – a large collection of letters – are a fascinating resource for learning more about Ellen and her research.

Pioneering work of Ellen Hutchins

To commemorate and celebrate her work carried, The Ellen Hutchins Festival is held in Bantry Bay in West Cork every August. Starting in 2015 as a commemoration of the 200th anniversary of her death, the annual festival includes a wide variety of events to promote and encourage the natural and cultural heritage and history of Bantry Bay. The festival takes place over 9 days during Heritage Week over various locations in the wider Bantry Bay area.

In August 2022, Jane attended the festival to learn more about Ellen Hutchins’s legacy and how events like the Ellen Hutchins Festival can celebrate historic figures and promote a region’s natural capital. The festival has many different walks, tours and workshops that focus on the botanical biodiversity of Bantry and West Cork. There was combination of formal evening talks and guided daytime trails in parks and forests, and along the coast. This mix encompassed various different aspects of Bantry Bay and the many different habitats that exist in the locality. Having the festival spread across a number of locations allows those attending to experience many of the different towns, villages and areas in Bantry Bay.

Events also included a blend of both science and history. One event was led by an aquatic biologist and a historical re-enactor. Attendees could learn more about how to identify, collect and preserve seaweeds while also learning about historical seaweed collection and observe some of the equipment which was used at the time. The Seaweed and Sealing Wax event, which Jane attended, was an immersive experience where local performers read letters between Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner, a botanist from Great Yarmouth whom she corresponded with for several years, while also noting the historical and scientific background of the era. Centuries on, this performance brought Ellen Hutchins’ personality and work to life. The event showcased period pieces relevant to the story and archive material belonging to Ellen.

The festival included some hands-on events where people could gain experience of repurposing marine litter or basket weaving. A highlight of these experiences are the botanical art classes, which teach you how to paint botanical watercolours similar to those produced by Ellen Hutchins, and how to weave using rushes. Several events focused on engaging children in their local biodiversity and wildlife, with tours and talks from National Parks and Wildlife Rangers, and workshops on working with plants under the microscope. The final day of the festival landed on Water Heritage Day, where you could learn more about the marine environment by joining a kayak tour of Adrigole Harbour with a local seasport and sailing company.

front of a small kayak looking across the water to other people in small kayaks
A kayak tour of Adrigole Harbour for Water Heritage Day

Throughout the duration of the festival, an exhibition on Ellen Hutchins was present within Bantry Library. This contained an abundance of information on Ellen and her work and some archival material such as possessions and letters belonging to Ellen were displayed in a wonderfully designed cabinet. Leaflets, books, and information handouts were present at each event to prompt those into learning more about Ellen, botany, and the biodiversity of West Cork. Included with these was “Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815) Botanist of Bantry Bay”, a fantastic book written by Madeline Hutchins and designed by Jenny Dempsey which details Hutchins' life including her illustrations and photos of the area she lived and studied.

A fantastic conclusion to the festival came the following month, when the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork renamed their building to honour the legacy of Ellen Hutchins. This included the unveiling of the Ellen Hutchins Reading Room where the exhibition previously held at Bantry library for the duration of the festival is now housed.

For more information about live and work of Ellen Hutchins visit:

The Ellen Hutchins Festival is a fantastic example of how we can celebrate and promote our natural heritage and history and celebrate women in science. Maude Delap's story is as unique and compelling as that of Ellen, and she very much put Valentia on the map in the marine biology world of the 19th and early 20th century.

Jane Sheehan’s current research into the personal life, academic study and the achievements of Maude, on top of what is already known and displayed in the Valentia Heritage Centre, show's Maude's story is a story worth telling and celebrating, and we look to the success of the innovative Ellen Hutchins Festival into how Maude's life can be of continued inspiration to us all.

graphic with image of an old woman in black and white, placed on an image of a sem-transparent jellyfish. Maude did pioneering work on jellyfish .
Maude Delap's pioneering work on marine species such as jellyfish


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