Her childhood, school, illness and Dublin
Ellen was born on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1785 in Ballylickey on the shores of Bantry Bay. Her father farmed land there and had a fishing business. He died when Ellen was two years old, leaving her mother as a widow with six children.
Ellen was sent away to a small girls school near Dublin, and while there became ill. A family friend in Dublin, Dr Whitley Stokes, who was Professor of Medicine at Trinity College Dublin, was asked for help. He and his wife took Ellen into their family home and looked after her.
The story goes that when Ellen was well enough to go back to Ballylickey she was dreading it. She was needed to help look after her elderly and ill mother, and her brother Tom who was disabled. She knew that she going to be stuck in the house much of the time, and she had no cousins or friends nearby.
Dr Stokes suggested that she needed something to keep her going, something she could study, something important and useful to do. He thought that botany would be a good idea, as it gave Ellen a reason to go out for walks, plant hunting, and plenty to do on rainy days and after dark, identifying and drying the plants she had found. He lent her some of his botany books, and maybe he gave her a microscope.
Botany, beauty and landscape
This ‘prescription’ of botany worked brilliantly. Where Ellen lived at Ballylickey, she was in a great place for plant hunting. There was a wonderful range of habitats. Her home was on the shore of Bantry Bay with a rocky strand, there was a river flowing beside the house and garden, nearby there were woods, heathland, bogs, mountains, lakes and the islands of Bantry Bay.
Ellen loved nature and the great outdoors. She admired the big views across the Bay from the shore, and looking down from the tops of the mountains. She loved going to the mountains, or out in a boat to collect seaweeds off remote rocks in the Bay. She brought back plants she called ‘treasures’, ‘beauties’ and ‘wonders’.
Dublin (above) and Bantry Bay (below) in Ellen’s time
Canrooska river in Glengarriff Woods
Details and determination
Ellen delighted in the details that she could see through her microscope, and was very excited when she found anything new or when she could explain something that had been a puzzle.
She showed great determination, and was willing to go back day after day to the same spot to see a particular plant, or to go through hundreds of plants of a seaweed to make sure that the one she chose for a specimen was the best example she could find.
Bantry Bay from Ardnagashel strand
Her character and looks
We have some lovely descriptions of her character, her skills and her knowledge, by her botanist friends. They wrote about:
”Her earnest kindness”
“extraordinary talents and no less extraordinary industry”
“the extent and depth of her botanical knowledge”
“her zeal and knowledge in these plants.”
After her death, Ellen’s great botanist friend, Dawson Turner, wrote a tribute to Ellen in his book of seaweeds. He wrote about “her liberality, her pleasure in communicating knowledge, and her delight in being useful.” He also wrote: “Botany had lost a votary as indefatigable as she was acute, and as successful as she was indefatigable.”
In other words, he said: botany has lost a devoted supporter who was always determined and energetic in trying to achieve something and never willing to admit defeat. She was equally strong in her understanding and insight.
There is no portrait of Ellen, so we do not know what she looked like. Ellen wrote that she was tall, and one of the botanists who visited her at Ballylickey described her as “pleasing” and “tolerably good-looking”.
Poor health and family troubles
Ellen suffered from long periods of poor health in the years that she was plant hunting and she had caring responsibilities for her mother and her disabled brother, Tom. Sometimes she could not go out at all for months on end, either because she was ill, or because of her mother’s poor health. Sometimes she was too ill even to hold a pen to write a letter.
There were also “troubles” as she called them in the family. Her two oldest brothers quarrelled with each other over money and property for years, and she and her mother were drawn into this, and became very upset and angry about it all.
Women’s clothes in Ellen’s time
A short life and an early death
What makes Ellen’s achievements in botany even more impressive is that she managed to do it all in just eight years, when she was aged twenty to twenty eight, and with the difficulties of poor health and family troubles.
Ellen spent over a year being ill most of the time, and doing very little botany. Ellen’s health got worse, her mother died, and then Ellen herself died on 9th February 1815, just before her thirtieth birthday.