Athy author Niamh Boyce’s remarkable debut novel The Herbalist has been nominated for a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award.
The vivid tale is set in 1930s Athy and centres around the arrival of the title figure in the town. The story centres around mystery he creates with his stall selling potions and lotions to its womenfolk, and the love, lust and tragedy that follows.
Niamh’s book, published in June, has been put forward for The Newcomer of the Year category in the national awards. She told the Leinster Leader that she is delighted with the nomination.
The story behind The Herbalist was inspired by old Leinster Leader newspaper cuttings from the 1940s concerning court cases against a Don Rodrique De Vere. He was eventually tried and sentenced for “immoral acts against girls” - journalistic shorthand, at the time, for helping local woman procure illegal abortions.
Niamh points out that the story she has built around the real-life character of the herbalist De Vere is entirely fictional, but is inspired by the cases she encountered while working on Leinster Leader archive files in a project in Athy town hall in the early 1990s. As a student, she worked on a FAS scheme to computer index the old newspaper files for the Kildare library service.
“There was a lot of stories about the same old types of crime, no light on your bike, breach of promise, and there was a terrible lot of children in court for very minor crimes.
“I was struck by one short article as I was indexing them, about an Indian man arrested for offences against girls in Athy. Ironically, I was working in the marketplace where he would have operated from. I tried to find out more about him, and there was small articles dotted around through the files. He was eventually put away for the offences.”
Niamh remarks that there was actually very little reported about the cases in the newspaper files, which reflected the silence around some aspects of women’s lives at the time.
“One of the first reactions I got is that [the book] is about real women, the characters didn’t feel stereotypical, one reader said.”
Niamh is a former community development worker who lived in Galway for 14 years. The mother of three, who is originally from McDonnell Drive in Athy, now lives with her family in Ballylinan, Laois, and works part-time in the library there. She started writing with short stories and she has also won acclaim for her verse, last year winning the Hennessy Prize for Poetry.
She is currently finishing another book, which she describes as a “slipstream novel” which is set in the contemporary world but with flashbacks to the past.
The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce has been nominated in the Newcomer of the Year Category of the Bord Gais Book Awards. Members of the public can vote for their favourite books. To vote, log onto www.irishbookawards.ie/vote. Voting is open until November 21.