The herbalist who captured a market-town mob
Niamh Boyce’s fictional debut – about a 1930s potion seller whose real business is a dark secret – captures small-town Ireland of both then and now
The inspiration for Niamh Boyce’s novel came from a 1942 news clipping from the Leinster Leader, about a herbalist who was arrested for ‘serious offences against girls’. Photograph: Alan Betson
When author Niamh Boyce was 19, she landed a job archiving the Leinster Leader. One day, she spotted a story “no longer than the width of a thumb” about a court case. Dating from May 1942, the report concerned a “coloured man arrested for serious offences against girls”.
Boyce made no note of it, but despite its brevity, the image of the man – and what he had done – stayed with her. When she began to write almost 20 years later, he doggedly returned to her mind, until she couldn’t ignore him.
Boyce’s debut novel The Herbalist concerns an exotic potion and tincture seller, who arrives in a midlands town and sets up a market stall. Before long the townsfolk, particularly the women, are beguiled by him. A strong cast – a prostitute, an ageing wife desperate for a child, two young girls who suffer similar fates – dominate a story that is sharply rendered, and full of dark humour.
Boyce perfectly captures the hysteria in the town’s see-sawing obsession with the herbalist. “The market in the real case was in my home town so I could really visualise him,” she says. “I also thought about [Arthur Miller’s play] The Crucible . . . about mob mentality and how a town can scapegoat someone”.
Boyce stresses that the novel is completely fictionalised, because she was fearful of “trespassing on people’s real lives”. Her story is set slightly earlier, in 1939, and subtly examines the class structures of Irish life, and the sense of predestination that comes with being born into a specific background.
“That structure was still there when I went to school in the 1980s,” says Boyce. “We were all still divided into groups according to whether our parents were farmers or shopkeepers.”
“Emily [a young girl who becomes obsessed with the book’s title character] has no standing and is a nobody. When you live in a small town, before you’re born you’re ‘one of the Kellys’. The day you start school is a new experience, in a new place – but not to the nuns who teach there and know exactly who you are. The herbalist character represents what an outsider can do – he sees Emily in a different way.”
A late starter
Boyce considers herself a late starter as a writer. Born in Athy, she lived in Galway for 14 years, before moving closer to home, in Ballylinan. After jobs as a community development officer and library archivist, she gave up work to have a family (she now works part-time).