Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2023), Reviews, Volume 31

Four Courts Press for the Trustees of the Edward Worth Library
ISBN 9781946820233

Reviewed by Mary Davies

No Caption Available

Mary Davies is the co-author (with Patricia Butler) of Wicklow through the artist’s eye: an exploration of County Wicklow’s historic gardens, c. 1660–1960 (Wordwell Books, 2014).

The Edward Worth Library in Dr Steevens’ Hospital, not far from Houston Station and one of the oldest libraries in Dublin, is almost unknown to the general public. Founded in the early eighteenth century, less than 30 years after Marsh’s Library and a century and a half before the National Library of Ireland, its important collection of rare early books covers the history of medicine and science, and of books themselves, and includes the first book specifically concerned with Irish plants. Edward Worth was a notable Dublin physician and a serious book-collector: when he died in 1733 his treasured library of more than 4,000 volumes was left to his fellow governors in the Hospital, and a room was specially designed to house it. Today the library still retains much of its eighteenth-century atmosphere, the original 300-year-old books still available to scholars and other interested readers.

In 2017 the trustees of the library organised a workshop on botany in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ireland, and Botany and gardens in early modern Ireland is the result of that gathering. Most of its speakers have contributed chapters to the book—Charles Nelson, formerly of Glasnevin’s National Botanic Gardens, has four chapters spanning the two centuries, including on Irish wild plants before 1690 and on the Physic Garden at Trinity College in the early 1700s. Together with the Worth’s librarian, Elizabethanne Boran, and its trustee, Emer Lawlor, he has also edited this elegant volume.

The first of the book’s four sections paints a picture of the rather scant knowledge of Irish plants in the seventeenth century, beginning with a very early source, a manuscript by Philip O’Sullivan Beare, exiled to Spain as a boy after the Battle of Kinsale; titled ‘Zoilomastix’ and dated to about 1626, it records 30 fruit and other trees, together with grain crops, peas and beans, herbs and flowers, said to be grown in Ireland. Some dozen types of fruit trees are recorded, including a fig tree in Drogheda. The text was never published and remained unknown until the 1930s.

By the start of the 1700s, interest in Irish plants was growing. An important botanist in Ireland during the new century was, like Worth, a Dublin physician and the second section is devoted to his life and work. Caleb Threlkeld was a dissenting minister from Cumberland who qualified in medicine and came to practise in Dublin in 1713, ostensibly because he had ‘a strait income and a large family’ but probably also because he had fallen out with his congregation back home. Here he continued his Lake District habit of taking lengthy walks to observe plants in the wild. Threlkeld lived off Francis Street, and his country walks extended to Chapelizod and Lucan in the west, northwards to Finglas, eastwards towards Ballsbridge and the mouth of the Dodder, and southwards to Harold’s Cross and Walkinstown.

The outcome of these expeditions was the first book to be published on Irish plants; Threlkeld’s Synopsis stirpium Hibernicarum appeared in Dublin in 1726. The book was a success and a London edition followed. Threlkeld had the support of another eminent physician/botanist, Sir Thomas Molyneux, who was involved in the short-lived Dublin Philosophical Society and who is listed on the Synopsis title-page as providing an appendix of ‘Observations made upon Plants’.

Entries were arranged in alphabetical order, and each was given its Latin and English names, with the Irish name where available in Gothic script, together with other information. A page reproduced in the book under review, for instance, shows Chelidonium minus, the Lesser Celandine, followed by its Irish name, said to be found ‘under the Hedges between Roper’s Rest [near the present Dufferin Avenue] and Dolphin’s Barn’; it is praised for ‘preserving the Teeth and Gumms from Rottenness’. The next entry, corn marigold, has the comment: ‘It is in some Place a Pest to the Corn, and Mannour-courts do amerce [fine] careless Tenants, who do not weed it out before it comes to Seed’.

Detailed analysis of what Threlkeld found, and where, is followed by a discussion on the contents of Edward Worth’s library—his ‘paper garden’. As a physician, Worth was greatly interested in medicinal plants, and the earliest herbal in his collection is a Latin text dating back to 1532. He also acquired botanical works from across the continents—all part of the burgeoning interest in botany at that time.

The scope of the book widens in its third and fourth sections, firstly to considering the eighteenth-century botanical collections of Marsh’s Library and the light thrown on early Dutch gardens and botany by Trinity College’s Fagel collection, and then to the wider framework of Irish gardening at that time. The Trinity Physic Garden, Cork botanist John K’Eogh and his records of garden plants at Mitchelstown Castle, Gothic features in Irish gardens, and Dublin’s nursery and seed trade are all covered in detail. The final chapter brings a notable woman botanist into the story. Ellen Hutchins, whose short life ended at the age of 29 in 1815, gardened and botanised in West Cork, specialising in identifying and recording liverworts, mosses and seaweeds. Like Edward Worth with his library, her name lives on, in her case in the damp-loving liverwort Jubula hutchinsiae and in Bantry’s annual Ellen Hutchins Festival.

This is a handsome, informative book, enhanced by contemporary and modern illustrations. Its contributors and publishers can be proud.


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