Children’s education in Ireland has long been influenced by gender, class and religion. During the nineteenth century, girls from the lower classes – if they were educated at all – were taught basic reading, writing and arithmetic, and domestic skills such as needlework. For middle- and upper-class girls, second level education up to the late nineteenth century largely focused on refinement of manners, designed to make them attractive marriage material. Despite the advent of a ‘quiet revolution’ in female education in the later decades of the century, which opened up greater – if still limited – professional opportunities, the ultimate destination for most was the domestic sphere, where they were expected to be good housewives, mothers and hostesses.
For middle- and upper-class girls who did receive an education similar to their brothers, opportunities to contribute to public discourse, scientific discovery or intellectual life were extremely limited. The Royal Irish Academy (RIA), for example, was very slow to entertain contributions from women – the first woman to deliver a paper to the Academy was Louisa Beaufort, daughter of Daniel Beaufort, one of the founding members of the RIA, and sister of Francis Beaufort, creator of the Beaufort wind-scale. When Louisa Beaufort delivered a paper to the RIA in October 1827, titled ‘An essay upon the state of architecture and antiquities in Ireland, previous to the landing of the Anglo-Normans’, it was far more likely because of her family connections rather than because she was a brilliant academic in her own right. In 1862, another great Dublin institute, the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) offered the excuse that ‘straitened finances and unfinished apartments’ prevented them allowing ladies to attend two lectures annually; there was no mention made of their being accommodated as members.
Even when a woman achieved the intellectual heights of Beaufort, or the literary success of Maria Edgeworth, there was no possibility of their attaining a university degree until the closing decades of the century: in 1884 Isabella Mulvany, headmistress of Alexandra College, was one of the first women to receive a university degree but it was awarded without her attendance at lectures. In 1904 women were finally admitted to Trinity College Dublin (TCD), albeit on a limited basis, and four years later the Irish Universities Act established two new universities – the National University of Ireland (with constituent colleges in Dublin, Cork and Galway), and Queen’s University Belfast. Women were to be admitted to all degrees and offices.
Despite the limitations society placed on them, many extraordinary women contributed significantly to scientific and intellectual discovery throughout the nineteenth century. One of the earliest was Ellen Hutchins. She was born in 1785 in Ballylickey, Co. Cork, and was one of Ireland’s first botanists. Hutchins suffered all her life from digestive problems; in her teens she was sent to stay with a friend of the family, Dr Whitley Stokes, a brilliant physician and polymath. Stokes encouraged Hutchins to take up his favourite science of botany, believing her health would benefit from spending as much time as possible outdoors. Further influenced by the work of fellow-botanist James Townsend Mackay, Hutchins was responsible for discovering many plants not previously recorded in the Irish and British Isles, and several that were completely new to science. Extremely generous with her findings, Hutchins received a steady stream of visitors in Ballylickey, including the naturalists Lewis Weston Dillwyn and Joseph Woods, who reported that she ‘gives most liberally, parting even with her last specimen’. Highly valued as a collector, Hutchins’s name appears by a great many species in the works of the botanists for whom she collected, including Dawson Turner's Historia Fuci (1808–19), which also includes seven of her drawings and a special tribute to her. Ill-health eventually caught up with Hutchins – she died just weeks before her thirtieth birthday – but in her short career she widely influenced botanical science. Despite this, she remained somewhat obscure until the twenty-first century but in recent years her contributions have gained significant attention: in 2015 the annual Ellen Hutchins Festival was established to celebrate her life and work, while in September 2022 the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork renamed their building in her honour.
Although Hutchins has reclaimed her rightful place, several other nineteenth century women naturalists have yet to receive similar recognition. Born in 1811, botanist and horticulturist Katherine Sophia Kane developed a keen interest in botany after she was sent to live with her uncle Matthias O’Kelly, a member of the Zoological Society of Dublin who was passionate about natural history and held an extensive collection of shells from around the country as well as being an avid collector of zoological specimens. The 1833 publication of The Irish flora, published anonymously and reissued in 1845, has been attributed to Kane: it was the first complete descriptive work on the Irish flowering plants and vascular cryptogams and is said to have been used as a textbook in the botany department of TCD. She was also the first woman elected as a member of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh in 1836 but sadly she appears to have published nothing further after her marriage to Sir Robert John Kane. Entomologist and conchologist Mary Ball was lucky enough to be born into a family where intellectual curiosity was encouraged. She was one of three siblings, all of whom embraced natural science: her brother Robert Ball went on to become director of the Dublin University Museum and donated some 7,000 specimens to it, while her sister Ann was an excellent botanist, amateur algologist and botanical illustrator whose work was published by male naturalists such as Professor William Henry Harvey and James Mackay. Mary Ball specialised in collecting invertebrates and shells and was acquainted with famed entomologists such as A. H. Haliday and Baron de Selys-Longchamps, who studied her collection. She was the first to record stridulation – the production of a shrill sound by the rubbing together of legs or wing cases – in corixid water bugs and her observations were published on her behalf by her brother Robert in 1845–6. William Thompson and Professor Harvey respectively named a mollusc and a seaweed after Ball.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our look at the contribution of Irish women to the natural sciences in nineteenth-century Ireland, which will be posted next week.