A Botanical Journey around Ireland

by Michael Campbell

(ISBA overseas member)


Early Purple Orchid

Early Purple Orchid

As beautiful and charming as Ireland is, the weather can be unforgiving.

So it was when I landed in Shannon on May 4, 2015—my fifth trip to my ancestral home. Chilly showers and fierce winds greeted me as I headed up to Doolin, which would serve as my base for a week of researching, and hopefully drawing, the spring wildflowers of the Burren. As part of an independent study project for my diploma in Botanical Art and Illustration at the Denver Botanic Gardens (USA), I was determined to find and record as many examples of these blooming wildflowers as possible in the short week ahead. But, I could tell that “mother nature” wasn’t going to make it easy.

Irish Seed Savers

Before even starting my search, I ventured to Skariff, to visit the Irish Seed Savers Association. This remarkable operation was a revelation. Irish Seed Savers Association exists as a living testimony to the richness and wealth of Irish agricultural history. The Association was founded by Anita Hayes in 1991. The work was initially done on a small farm in County Carlow before moving to Capparoe, Scarriff in 1996.


Apple Orchard

Most notable to me was the Native Apple Collection containing a unique orchard of over 33 self-rooting varieties of apple trees that require no grafting for propagation. This is probably the largest collection of this type of apple tree in the world. Walking through the blooming orchards is truly amazing! The staff have also established a Seed Bank containing more than 600 rare and endangered vegetable varieties, as well as conducting school children’sprograms. All in all, a really impressive effort.

The Wild Atlantic Way

After getting settled, I headed north on the Atlantic Coast Highway with no other agenda than to look for blooming wildflowers. The clouds had cleared, but the wind was howling. I stopped at the first place I saw where I could safely pull over. With the Atlantic on my left, and the limestone landscape of the Burren on my right, and armed with my copy of “Wildflowers of the Burren” I started wandering. As luck would have it, one of the first tiny flowers that caught my eye were small, brilliant blue blooms holding their own against the side of a rock. The Spring Gentian! I had read that it was rather rare so I checked and double checked my field guide. Yep, it was the Gentian! Soon after I came across a mountain aven, an early purple orchid, and several others that I had no idea what they were. It was amazing to me that these tiny plants could withstand the harsh weather conditions that were currently pummeling me.

At the edge

At the edge

Burren Perfumery

After heading up the coast and turning east, I was now in search of the Burren Perfumery. I’d heard good things about it. Although remote and rather difficult for a tourist like me to find, the Burren Perfumery did not disappoint. For those who aren’t familiar, the staff at the perfumery make natural and organic cosmetics by hand from a small facility in the middle of the beautiful Burren. I was especially interested in their selection of locally harvested teas and honey. A very nice herb garden and tea room to boot! Worth the drive, and a good chance to review my wildflower reference book over a steaming cup of tea.

Hiking the Burren

Wednesday was devoted entirely to walking and experiencing the Burren up close. After stopping at the Corofin visitor centre for directions and a map I headed, to the best of my ability, the way they pointed me. Before too long I was at the trailhead and hiked along the “orange” trail, through what looked like a vast pasture. Little did I know how much that would change!



Immediately, I noticed groupings of yellow cowslips, primroses, and the hybrid false oxslips. Scattered on a hillside were dozens of early purple orchids. Further down the trail it turned into lush green, shaded woodland where ferns, sorrel, and a couple of lesser twayback orchids stood side by side. Apparently, this part of the Burren was visited by J.R.R. Tolkein before he wrote the “Hobbit”. I can certainly see why! On the way back to the trailhead I spotted more tiny spring gentians.



Later in the day, along a small gravel road loop leading to the working farm located in the Burren, I spotted a solitary bloody cranesbill, its one brilliant red flower looking up at me. It was gorgeous against all the brown shubbery and rock.

Bloody Cranesbill

Bloody Cranesbill

National Botanic Gardens

After what I considered a very successful few days in and around the Burren, on Saturday I headed to Dublin, and the National Botanic Gardens. After the peace and quiet of Western Ireland the chaos and complexity of Dublin was an assault on my senses. So many languages, so much traffic, so much humanity! Fortunately, the nearby Botanic Gardens was an oasis of tranquility. My visit started with a brief tour of the library and a peek at a few of the rare books on botanical painting—one from the 1500s!

National Botanic Gardens Library

National Botanic Gardens Library

Next an introduction to Brendan Sayers, master horticulturist and orchid expert, who showed me a folio edition of Ireland’s Wild Orchids. Such a thrill! Soon after, I had the distinct privilege of meeting and chatting with Susan Sex, Ireland’s foremost botanical artist. What a lovely person and what a huge talent. Seeing her current work in progress left me speechless! After a personal tour by Brendan and Susan, I left the gardens inspired and exhausted.

Go raibh maith agat as na mbronntanas

The entire week I had experienced so much more than I had anticipated and I was filled with admiration and gratitude for all the help I received during my stay. I would be heading back home to Colorado loaded with information, ideas, and a promise to myself that I would be back here soon.

ISBA overseas member Michael Campbell has spent 30 plus years as a graphic designer, art director, and creative director, including a 25 year career at the University of Colorado. He has taught publication design at CU and currently is an adjunct instructor in the Visual Art Department at Regis University in Denver. In 2010 he was awarded a certificate in Botanical Illustration from the Denver Botanic Gardens School of Art & Illustration. He is currently a student in the School of Botanical Art & Illustration Diploma program, and is also participating in the ISBA project Plandaí Oidhreachta.

Aibítir in Waterford 10 July – 21 August 2015

IMG_0099-(2)_web IMG_0097-(2)_webAfter the highly successful Aibítir exhibitions held in 2014 at the National Botanic Gardens, The Derry Playhouse and the Belfast Waterfront Hall, the paintings from the ISBA’s inaugural project continue to tour in major venues around Ireland. A single 18 letter alphabet was displayed in Bunclody Public Library in the spring of 2015, followed by the Exhibition being shown in its entirety at the Hunt Museum Limerick earlier this summer. IMG_0105-(2)_web IMG_0102-(2)_web

On Friday 10 July, two of the alphabets – along with a few extra from the third alphabet that were painted by artists from the local area – went on display at the Christ Church Cathedral in Waterford. Located in the cultural heart of the city the cathedral is a magnificent example of the work of Georgian architect John Roberts. The bright, airy interior, with its beautiful stucco ceiling and handsome Elliot organ, provides a sympathetic space for the paintings, which are displayed on either side of the main aisle in the entrance atrium.

IMG_0082-(2)_webWe are grateful to ISBA artists living in Waterford and environs – Sally de Bromhead, Marie de Lacy Clancy, Ann Kane, and Breda Malone, for their support and help in bringing Aibítir to the historic city of Waterford. We also greatly appreciate the wonderful hospitality that has been extended to the ISBA by Dean Maria Jansson and her staff during the exhibition, not to mention the guidance and publicity for this exhibition by Fiona McHardy and Emer Powell of the Waterford Viking Triangle. Last but not least, we thank Maria Ines Dawnay for not only opening the Exhibition, but for her enthusiasm and support in bringing Aibítir to Waterford.

IMG_0083-(2)_web IMG_0080-(2)_web On Tues 18 August, beginning at 11 am, botanical artist Breda Malone will conduct a day-long workshop at the Cathedral for anyone who would like to try their hand at botanical art. Anyone wishing to attend should bring along a sketch pad and pencil, and Breda will supply plants and flowers and do a demonstration of some of the techniques used in botanical illustration.

The Exhibition continues at Christ Church Cathedral until Friday 21 August.

Many thanks to Robin and Ann Kane for these beautiful photographs of the Waterford Exhibition of the Aibítir paintings.

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