Sinister secret of the rural herbalist with a gold tooth and a Panama hat
Author based bestselling Irish abortion novel on real events
Published 16/06/2013 | 05:00
Niamh Boyce, author of The Herbalist, the new novel that paints a shocking picture of abortion in rural Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s, has revealed that the book is based on real events.
The novel, which is now moving up the bestseller chart, tells the fictional story of an exotic foreigner who arrives in a midlands town and starts selling his potions and lotions in the local market.
The women of the town all seem mesmerised by this visitor who appears to have a cure for all their ills. In fact he does so well that he decides to settle in the town.
But the herbalist has a dark secret – as well as herbal cures, he is providing abortions.
The novel deals with this shadowy side of Irish life at a time before abortion was legal in the UK and has a special resonance now because of the current abortion debate here.
Although the midlands town is not named in the book, the story is based on real events that took place in Athy, Co Kildare, in the 1930s.
Boyce, who was the Hennessy Writer of the Year last year, says she discovered the story when she was doing archiving work during computerisation at the Leinster Leader newspaper.
She was looking at papers from the 1930s when a short report caught her eye.
"It detailed a charge against a 'coloured man' for an offence against a girl. His name was Dr Don Rodrique de Vere," Boyce says.
"I found further articles, which were just as vague but added that the man was a herbalist, and the offences were 'immoral'. The charge changed from 'girl' to 'girls'. I kept an eye out for these short reports on the case and read finally that he was found guilty on six counts.
"He was sentenced to 18 months' hard labour in respect of each of these charges, to run concurrently.
"Years later I found out more. It was through a column by historian Francis Taaffe called Eye On Athy that ran in the Kildare Nationalist. It turned out that De Vere came to Athy in 1935, set up his herbal stall in the market and his home in a disused shed. As he became more popular, he moved into a terraced house and bought a motorbike.
"He sported a Panama hat, a gold tooth and was an 'impressive dresser'. It seems he was shunned by the locals when he returned from prison."
Boyce also found De Vere's original notebook in which he documented his treatments. The notebook is now retained in the National Archive and, disturbingly, it still has bloody fingerprints on it.
John Spain, books editor