Under the headline, ‘Brewing up a magic potion’, the Sunday Times brought a new writer to the attention of a wider readership with the announcement ‘Niamh Boyce announces her arrival with a devilishly good debut novel.’ The reviewer was Justine McCarthy who wrote of Niamh and her debut novel, ‘The Herbalist’, as ‘doing for women in fiction what Beethoven did for the piano’. High praise indeed for a young writer who McCarthy claims has ‘plotted and executed an elegant morality tale about the inescapable strictures of women’s lives in post independence Ireland.’ Three days later the Irish Times devoted a half page feature to Niamh’s fictional debut with the headline ‘The Herbalist who captured a market town mob’. The market town was and is the town of Athy where the events of 71 years ago concerning the Blackparks resident Don Rodrique de Vere were acted out. Why the reference to a ‘mob’, whether market town or otherwise, I cannot fathom. The story of Dr. Roderick de Vere was outlined in Eye on the Past No. 122 and I am delighted that Niamh was encouraged by what I wrote then to embark on writing a fictional account of the herbalist and his relationship with women who sought his help.
I am told that the fictional telling of his story nevertheless leaves the readers with a readily identifiable oversight of Athy of the 1930s. I am reminded of another book written about Athy and Athy folk which was published in 1957. ‘Himself and I’ was the story of an American family’s brief stay amongst us during the early 1950s. The writer who used the pseudonym Anne O’Neill Barna was in fact Elaine Ranelagh, an American folklorist and one time radio presenter in New York who championed the music of Ledbelly long before he became an essential part of American folk music. ‘Himself and I’ followed on another book which also used Athy for its background. ‘The House in the Heart’ was written by Elizabeth Coxhead, an English writer and journalist with family connections with the Duncans of Tonlegee House, Athy. These two female writers, together with Niamh Boyce, have immortalised Athy in print. The market town which one time outshone all other towns in this part of Leinster but which now seems to slumber undisturbed, is forever captured in the novels of O’Neill Barna, Coxhead and now Niamh Boyce.
The ‘Herbalist’ is published by Penguin Ireland and will be launched today, Tuesday, at 7.00 p.m. in Athy Library by John MacKenna. It promises to be an important literary event for what her publishers describe as ‘a new dazzling voice’.
In Eye No. 1066 I wrote a brief note on Athy Hurling Club and its past successes. Following that I received a photograph of the first hurling team organised in the local Christian Brothers School. The young lads, probably 15 or 16 years of age, were photographed in 1936 before they went out to defeat O’Connell’s School Dublin in Croke Park. The players photographed are Des Hurley, Tadhg Brennan, Dinny Fox, Jim Malone, Joe Gibbons, Paddy Garrett, Joe O’Neill, Lal Murray, Eddie Purcell, Jack Dunne, John Gannon, Frank Kelly, Pat Smyth, Noel Blanchfield, Dick Davis and Munsie Purcell.