A look back on Cobh’s horticultural heroine, Anne Elizabeth Ball

Fiann Ó Nualláin looks back at the life of Anne Elizabeth Ball, a botanist whose work is illuminating our future.

Polysiphonia, by Anne Elizabeth Ball, who dedicated her life to phycology ( the study of algae and some seaweeds), and botanical sketching

Most people would be forgiven for only knowing of Cobh’s maritime history: The Titanic, the Lusitania, famine ships to America and transportation ships to Australia.

It’s funny that one of the oldest names for Cobh is Oileán Ard Neimheadh after Nemed, one of the early settlers of Ireland of whom it is claimed a genealogy going back to Noah.

At this point I’m sure you arethinking: “interesting, Fiann, but what’s all this got to do with gardening?” 

Well, Cobhians be proud, the hero I want to explore for this month owes her heroic endeavours to an upbringing around your beautiful bay.

However, I also have to say that it is Cobh’s, Cork’s, and Ireland’s shame that she is not more well-known or celebrated at home. 

Maybe, it’s time for a statue or scholarship in her name. 

Some of the heroes I will cover have done momentous work in putting Ireland on the horticultural map and have become household names in the process, but some have been a shining light under a bushel.

The story of Anne Elizabeth Ball (1808–1872) my heroine for February is one — a casualty of gender inequality and the expectations on how women should conduct their lives — in subservience to fathers, brothers , husbands, and any male sphere of influence in the 1800s.

Garden 2702 Anne Elizabeth Ball botanical heroine

Anne never married; she dedicated her life to phycology (the study of algae and some seaweeds) and botanical sketching between periods of nursing her ill father. 

He was also a keen naturalist who seemed to have infused the whole family with a love of nature. Her sister, Mary, contributed to Irish entomology (the study of insects) via her writings, study, and collections, while her brother was the famous Robert Ball, a natural historian. 

Ball was director of the Dublin University Museum, president of the Geological Society of Ireland, fellow of the Royal Society and inventor of Ball’s dredge, a net device to collect marine organisms that revolutionized marine sampling and species studies and which was used all over the world, unmodified even to the present.

The fact that I can reel off Robert’s accomplishments, while his two sisters get one- or two-line entries in historic sources, speaks volumes. 

I’m not one that says “oh it was like that in those days”,, what’s wrong is wrong in any era. 

What was wrong for Anne was that women were not allowed to be members of scientific and academic societies and were not in a position to publish their own findings.

While it may be noted that Anne sent sketches and physical samples of algae to the herbarium of Dublin University, to the Ulster museum, and to Kew Gardens, which furthered the study and understanding of Irish species, she is coined as a “keen botanist” or an “amateur algologist”.

Her correspondence with William Henry Harvey (professor of botany at Trinity College Dublin) assisted his compilation and completion of his tome Phycologia Britannica. 

It is understood that findings and papers by women with scientific interest were published by the men they “assisted”. 

It is said her assistance to Harvey led him to name Cladophora balliana after her. 

Anne had collected the original specimen of Cladophora balliana on May 16, 1843, at Clontarf in Dublin. 

What else should it be called? In all dues, Harvey also dedicated an entire genus — Ballia— to her in 1840. Entirely fitting.

Harvey was a friend of Robert Ball and some argue that he honoured the whole family. 

She also assisted the celebrated botanist James MacKay, among others, and her illustrations and records helped William Thompson publish his multi-volumed, The Natural History of Ireland.

Anne’s road to commemoration in a plant genus was through a lifetime spent along the shorelines of Cobh and Youghal in her early life and, when the family upped sticks to Dublin, she continued her work in Dublin bay and the coastline of Leinster. 

She resided at Belmont Avenue in Dublin until her death in 1872. Her lifetime of illustrations, plant specimens, and notebooks were scattered between several prestigious institutions, including the royal precursor of the National Botanic Gardens and overseas to the British Natural History Museum. 

Also, while the dust gathers on them, great strides have been made in the field of algology and in particular with the algae species associated with Anne.

Today algae is being explored as a biofuel with immense potential, but apart from running the car, algae is also fuelling health and fitness from its protein sources and phytochemical makeup that sees its nutritional benefits improve athletic performance with a trickle-down effect to the health smoothie markets.

Cladophora is an edible algae and is quite popular in Thai and Laos cooking, used in a similar way to nori. 

Being abundant in the freshwater habitat of the Nan and Mekong rivers it has fed local populations for thousands of years. 

What I find interesting about it is that it contains a lot of b-carotene and zeaxanthin, which nutritionally addresses macular degeneration and other ocular complaints.

Cladophora may also be the next revolution in energy storage. The algae can hold a charge for a long time and can be processed into thin strips. 

There have been many attempts to develop thinner batteries, not just to streamline design and production, but to allow really short recharge times. 

The goal is a paper-thin battery or a printable battery. Paper degrades too easily, but a thin nori-like strip of algae has staying power.

The Cladophora species Anne collected at Clontarf, and its cousins around Ireland and the world, are characterised by a cellulose with a very large surface area — over a hundred times the surface of the cellulose found in paper.

That’s 100 times more conducting polymer that can be applied, amounting to a massive capacity boost (possibly 100%-plus in excess of other batteries), but, best of all, because of the energy distribution over the greater surface area the lifetime of the rechargeable battery will be greatly extended. Thinner, more powerful and less wastage. Bring on the future. 

So, while in the future the branded generation will need neck braces to hold up their gigantic headphones, their tiny nano pods will be smaller than the price sticker on the ear cans.

Advances in technology and in all spheres of science can improve our lives, but those advances, like every great journey, start with a single step and when Anne fell in love with the rock pools back home, she began expanding her own understanding which led to expanding the understating of the academic community. 

This in turn led to the recording and mapping of species, which created the interest and capacity for further scientific research leading to today’s ecological breakthrough. When you drop a stone in a rock pool, it ripples.

I wonder what the ripple would have been if Anne could have participated and competed on the same level as her male counterparts. 

This is the centenary of 1916 — the “cherish all the children equally” proclamation. 

This included the women on the frontline of the insurrection and it means we have to have the debate of how we see the future of Ireland. 

Beyond gender, beyond sexual orientation, beyond race, beyond class, beyond discrimination. The fight was for a level playing field. 

The fight was for making our own destiny — as a nation and as individuals — not to just be footnotes in history.

So, for my part, it’s good to celebrate our achievements, it’s good to pay homage to the forerunners, but better if we can also show example and inspire the next generation. Let’s encourage inquisitiveness and reward interest. S

o, bring the kids or grandkids to a rock pool, drag them along to a gallery or museum, and buy them a book and an egg for Easter. They will love you for it later.



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