Fiann Ó Nualláin reports on the work of Mitchelstown-born, John K’eogh, a great Irish botanical author.   

This month’s horticultural hero is a Cork lad. 

John K’eogh (c1681-1754) author of Botanologia Universalis Hibernica or ‘A General Irish Herbal’. 

Straight away you can see the two reasons I picked him. 

Now I have to be fair and say that I have wrestled a bit over the years with Mister K’eogh as to whether or not I could count him an Irish hero — as to whether he advanced the English cause or the Irish cause.

He did anglicise his name from the original family name MacEochadhs but just like all those Sean Ó Súilleabháins and Mairead Ó Connors that fled famine or persecution to Ellis island only to leave as John Sullivan or Mary Koner — maybe it was part of the process of survival. 

I often think that genocide affects a couple of generations, but cultural genocide ripples on. 

The fact that he wrote an Irish herbal at all, qualifies him as a hort hero – keeping any ‘Irish’ context alive then was a life line to future generations.

Certainly for me, as a student of botany, finding a reproduction of his book in the library at Glasnevin reminded me of our indigenous herbal medicine. 

I was interested in herbalism, and then as now, that interest is poorly served by tutors and bookshops recommending Gerard’s herbal or Culpeper’ herbal — books that intertwine Yorkshire ethnobotany and Sussex folklore with translations from Latin and Greek works.

A healing herb is a healing herb but what are we losing running to the garlic and the milkthistle and trampling over the ramson and the meadowswee? 

That encounter with K’eogh’s book set me to think of our healing plants and ignited my interest in Irish ethnobotany. So you now know who to blame.

K’oegh’s herbal is hardly a record of native Irish cures, but it does focus on plants that can be grown (or were grown at the time) in Ireland and it records their benefits to combat common ailments.

It sets the herbalism in an Irish, geographical context if nothing else. 

It informs the reader of the habitat and season of the herb, so it can be found, and gives descriptive pointers to assist identification and information on its uses, once harvested. 

It delivers this data in a concise manner unlike some of the meandering, prosaic herbals of the day. The original title is almost longer than some of the entries:

“Botanalogia universalis Hibernica, or, a general Irish herbal cal culated for this kingdom, giving an account of the herbs, shrubs, and trees ... in English, Irish, and Latin; with a true description of them, and their medicinal virtues and qualities. 

"To which are added, two short treatises. One concerning the chalybeat, waters showing their origin, situation, medicinal virtues, etc. Another of the prophylactic or, hygiastic part of medicine, showing how health may be preserved, and distempers which human bodies are subject to, prevented.”

In some quarters it was and is seen as not quite comprehensive enough and perhaps leaning heav,ly on herbals that had gone before for content – I’m a fan because it lists many native plants and so marks a respect for, and adds credibility to, native herbal medicine that would inspire future authors on the subject.

K’eogh wrote Botanologia Universalis Hibernica in Cork around 1735. 

He was a doctor of divinity and held the position of chaplain to the Baron Kingston of Mitchelstown, Cork. 

His faith did not cloud his record of healing plants and perhaps in a flash back to Old Testament genesis, he writes “there is not a herb, shrub, or tree in nature but that it is serviceable to man either as food or medicine, or for both”. 

In his preface he argues a return to simple herbal medicine and mistrusts the compounds from druggists and apothecaries.

Here is a sample of his recommendations:

* Asparagus – provokes urine.. opens obstructions of the liver and spleen.

* Basil – invigorates the head and nerves, fortifies the brain and refreshes the spirits.

* Chickweed – boiled in salt and water is a powerful remedy against the heat of scurvy and the itching of hands.

* Coltsfoot – the leaves ponded with honey cure all skin inflammations.

* Heartsease – for fevers, internal inflammations and wounds.

* Dandelion – cleanses the liver and bladder.

* Fennel – strengths the stomach – is a powerful optic medicine.

* Herb Robert —stops the bleeding of wounds.. sore mouth.

* Houseleek – useful for burns, scalds inflammation.

* Meadowsweet – beneficial for fevers.

* Pine tree bark and needles — loosens phlegm and good for consumptive coughs.

* Ransoms (wild garlic) – internally it kills worms.

Many of these cures are as popular and effective today, but one glaring redundancy is his chamomile-based remedy for burns – he advises mixing the herb with fresh butter and goose dung. 

Now chamomile is antiseptic so okay, but butter will keep the burn burning, so cooling water, not heat generating fats is order of the day and as for the goose dung – where am I going get that in the middle of Dublin — never mind infection risks?

John K’Eogh went on to pen Zoologia Medicinalis Hibernica or, ‘A Treatise on Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Reptiles or Insects known and propagated in this Kingdom’ (1739), and also a book entitled ‘Vindication of the Antiquities of Ireland’ (1748).

The latter shows a bit of the Cork rebel in him and tips the scales — at heart he forwarded the interests of Ireland through his work, sometimes with some ire —the cover of it reads: “Against all the aspersions cast on it by foreigners.

To which is added, an etymological treatise, shewing the Derivations of the Proper Names given to the Inhabitants of this Kingdom, with those of the Cities, Towns, and other Places contained therein, from the Irish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and other Languages. Likewise, an appendix, giving a brief account of the original Descent of the principal Milesian Families in Ireland”.

K’eogh was staking a claim. All in all, the Irish herbal struck his first claim. So I claim him a hero. And when Mitchelstown gets round to it, I will unveil the monument.


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