Novelist Niamh Boyce focuses on the passion and anger of 1930s Athy

The title character in Niamh Boyce’s novel The Herbalist causes upheaval when he sets up his stall in the square of a sleepy Irish market town in the 1930s.

The town is unnamed, but Boyce, who will appear at this year’s Dublin Book Festival, says she used her hometown of Athy, Co Kildare, as a model, particularly for the riverside scenes.

The herbalist’s potions and tonics draw a crowd. The men curse his “dark crafts and foreign notions”, but the women are enthralled by his exotic, Indian ways. They call him “the black doctor”. There’s a procession to his door; he is a back-street abortionist, based loosely on a local historical figure.

The idea was conceived 20 years ago when Boyce, 42, worked a summer job in Athy’s town hall, indexing old copies of the Leinster Leader newspaper. Boyce was working on issues from 1942. “One day, I came across an article that really struck out at me, for a few reasons,” she says. “One — it was absolutely tiny. It was basically one sentence and three lines. It said ‘a herbalist, Don Robert Rodriguez De Vere, was arrested for offences against a girl’. There was nothing else said about it, just that he was Indian and in Athy. I kept an eye on it, and the next week there was another report and the offences changed from ‘girl’ to ‘girls’, and it gave his address as being ‘Blackparks, Athy’. Another week passed and I found him again, and he was given hard labour for his crime.

“Even though I was 19 when I first read the article, my first thought was that he was a scapegoat for someone. I had this feeling that there was an awful lot more to him.

“There are people who still remember him, because of his colour, first of all. At my book launch, older people who, maybe, would have been six or seven in 1942, came up to me and said, ‘I can remember him.’ If you saw him once in the square in Athy, I imagine you’d remember him, given how drab and wet and dreary it was.

“The time he was doing his trade, there was a lot of poverty and misery. He really stood out. My herbalist is a fictional character inspired by this guy, but he did wear a white suit and a panama hat and had a gold tooth. He was a flashy character. Seemingly, he had a motorbike, as well. He was quite fondly thought of, if you talk to older people.”

Women swirl around the fictional herbalist, who remains a mysterious character. In contrast, the key women in The Herbalist are vivid, and bring to mind the intelligent, conflicted characters from the best of Kate O’Brien’s writing.

Emily, 16, is seemingly gauche and full of the vim and reckless enthusiasm of youth. Many of her fellow townspeople — jealous, probably, of her vivacity — take her spiritedness for “shiftiness”. Her mother is a lush, weighed under from depression and the scorn of her older, shell-shocked husband. Emily is a keen, intelligent observer, but she falls hopelessly for “the pure smoky wonder” of the herbalist.

Sarah, 23, is beautiful. She’s a country girl, and the “songbird” that lands in Carmel and Dan’s nest, a pair of married, childless shopkeepers. Sarah is spirited to them by Carmel’s scheming brother, Finbar, who wants to put Sarah beyond his son’s reaches. Sarah, an orphan who lives with her bohemian midwife aunt, is too impoverished to be a good match for the schoolmaster’s son.

Notions of “respectability” obsess the characters of The Herbalist. Only Aggie, the “town you know what,” who lives on a barge, is beyond the pretensions of the townsfolk. “Only for the likes of Aggie,” says Emily, “our family would have no-one to look down to at all.”

“It was a very confined society,” says Boyce. “That’s why I think the character of Aggie would be one of the freest in the book, because she’s not respectable. She’s an outsider. She still has a vulnerable life, and quite a brutal one, but she is the only one with any measure of freedom, because she’s outside that notion of respectability. The more respectable you were, the more you had to stay within the limits of what society expected.

“The other thing was that there was no contraception, so you couldn’t control your fertility, but there was also huge pressure to conceive. There was something very wrong if you didn’t. You were very much watched, and it was a crime in the Church not to have children. There was as much pressure on the likes of Carmel, who wasn’t having any children, as there was on Sarah, who was caught.” The most tender passages of The Herbalist deal with Carmel and Dan’s stillborn baby and their grief, especially Carmel’s. She’s demented from it, a situation worsened by the Catholic Church’s refusal to acknowledge the child spiritually.

The baby, named Samuel, must drift eternally in limbo. Father Higgins wouldn’t give him a blessing; nor would he allow him to be buried in consecrated ground. “The child is not the Church’s responsibility,” he said.

“I have a lot of sympathy for Carmel,” says Boyce. “It’s very hard when a baby dies, but to add on to that the idea that you would never, ever see the child. I’m not religious, but I had to get myself into the frame of mind of a person who absolutely believes in God, and in heaven and the afterlife, and the idea that she would never see her child again, and that her child would never see God.

“I think that was a huge part of who she was, and her torment — not just that the baby had died, or that she couldn’t conceive another one, but the fact her baby was trapped in a place where God didn’t exist.

“It’s easy to look back at the women and men of the past, those women in the ’80s or ’90s who were still wearing headscarves, as being uptight, or less advanced or forward-thinking, as being fuddy-duddies, but if you go back and imagine how terrifying the world of sex was, especially for women — you could end up being incarcerated; your child could end up being taken away from you. For me, that lack of control over your own destiny and your own body, in those times, was horrific. They lived in a fundamentalist regime that locked up people who stepped outside the lines.”

*The Herbalist, by Niamh Boyce, is published by Penguin Ireland, €14.99.

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