- 24 Apr 19
A re-imagining of the events leading to Ireland’s first witch trial, Niamh Boyce’s Her Kind is a brilliantly compelling effort.
When you think of medieval women you think of cowed, subservient people,” says Niamh Boyce, sitting in Cassidy’s Hotel, where we’re discussing her new work Her Kind. “Alice Kyteler was incredibly powerful. She was one of the first money lenders and a property owner. She was a mature older woman who had four husbands. If she existed, how many others that we don’t know about did? We know a version of history which the powerful wanted us to know.”
Her Kind – the title is a nod to the Anne Sexton poem – is an historical reimagining of the events leading to Ireland’s first witch trial, told primarily through the story of Alice’s servant Petronelle.
“It was actually Patricia Deevey who mentioned Alice Kyteler to me,” explains Boyce. “I’m from Kildare, quite near Kilkenny, and would have known of her in a general way, similar to the way children might know about local tales – something about a witch and a castle. I was coming to the end of another book, which just didn’t feel right. I opened a document and what came to me was Petronelle’s voice – I just started writing.”
Boyce carried out extensive research and drew from a number of sources, including a text of events written by Alice’s accuser, Bishop Ledrede.
“I read his Sorcery Trial Of Alice Kyteler – A Contemporary Narrative and also her confession,” explains Niamh. “I know it sounds wacky, but the voice of the character started to come, and the first thing she said to me is, ‘That is not my name and those are not my words’. That felt much more powerful than all the work I had done on the other novel.”
Boyce is primarily a character-led writer, so she went to great lengths to evoke an accurate sense of the time in which they lived.
“As it was 700 years ago, I found myself getting stuck, because I didn’t know how it felt to be in their bodies, how they were physically in their space. I travelled a lot to Kilkenny and I would have done a lot of walking in the streets and alleyways.
“One of the best sources of information for me was Liber Primus Kilkenniensis – basically a common book for the town from the 1300s to the 1500s. It gives you details on taxes, who did what to who, who owed what, what people ate, what they were fined for – I could also see what was considered taboo, which was a good reflection of the society at the time.”
Much is spoken of method acting, but Niamh actually became a method writer, as she undertook a beekeeping course during the book’s creation.
“It was such a huge part of life then, because they provided the only source of sugar,” notes Niamh. “Also, the wax was needed for candles, which were the only source of light. It is written in Brehon Law that the only thing you can do on a Sunday is chase a swarm, because they are so important. I loved the idea of examining the essential parts of life and how people existed day to day.”
Alice’s case was the first of just two witch trials – ever! – in Ireland.
“There is a book called Irish Witchcraft And Demonology and it is so tiny compared to other countries!” laughs Niamh. “Witch-hunting just didn’t take off here, I think culturally we don’t buy into it. The Irish Church was taken to task for being too pagan – we were much more Celtic Christians, much more nature-based. Ireland had a different type of Christianity. Most of the Christian festivals are pagan.”
Her Kind is Niamh’s second novel. Her first – The Herbalist – was nominated for an IMPAC award, and won Debut of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It was published in 2013 and in the interim, Niamh self-published a poetry collection, Inside The Wolf.
“I wanted them out there as I wanted to move on,” she says. “I feel like I’m coming into a new chapter. I started out writing poetry, and my first thumbs-up for writing was the Hennessy in 2012, which was for poetry. My poetry was always private – it was only when I started writing short stories that it occurred to me to publish, or try to publish my poetry. The poems in the book are 15 years in the making. So when I was editing them, I found I needed to answer some of them, as I had changed so much since they had been written – so I did write new ones to finish the collection.”
Currently she is working on a book about another strong female character from history – but this time her story is virtually forgotten.
“Catherine Crowe was actually as famous as Dickens in her day!” notes Niamh. “She wrote an examination of the paranormal and was friends with Thomas De Quincey and the opium eaters. She took drugs to try to get in touch with the spirit world; she was interested in trancing. She actually got a bit carried away once and was caught running down the street naked.
“But what interests me is this: that story is all many people know about her now, and she is just a footnote and a joke. Also, she started writing at 42. Middle-age is misconstrued especially for women – it is a brilliant time in terms of creativity. She wrote one best seller after another and these were the first crime books.”
Her Kind opens with the poem 'We Are Damned, My Sisters' by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, which is pertinent both to the novel itself, and to the role of women in society.
“For me,” Niamh adds optimistically, “part of it is that we know nothing good is going to happen, and yet we still live our lives and enjoy every minute! Even knowing the end, our lives are worth living – that’s what I see in that poem.”
Her Kind is published by Penguin Ireland.