Thursday 18 December 2014

Part 1 - Boys, dances and the pain of rejection

Overweight and over six feet tall, the young Maeve Binchy believed she was an ugly duckling. But on holidays in Ballybunion she began to find her feet. In these edited extracts from his new biography of Ireland's best loved writer who died last year, Piers Dudgeon reconstructs her teenage years and the experiences she went on to use later in her bestselling novels

Born in 1939, Maeve Binchy grew up in comfortable middle-class surroundings in Dalkey, then very much a rural seaside village separate from the distant capital. Her father William was a lawyer, her mother Maureen a former nurse at St Vincent's Hospital, and home was Eastmount, an imposing house on Knocknacree Road to which the Binchys moved in 1952. "My childhood was a joy," Maeve said. She remembered no arguments between her parents during the entire course of her childhood.

But Maeve, the eldest of four children, had an awkward time as she entered her teenage years. She was tall for her age, over six feet.

And it wasn't only her height. In later life, Maeve put it plainly: "I was fat, and that was awful because when you're young and sensitive, you think the world is over because you're fat."

The Irish Independent columnist Mary Kenny, who met Maeve a decade later, remembered her saying that as a teenager she always weighed "around 15 stone". A friend from the time recalled that she had to have her clothes specially made: "She had great difficulty in getting them to fit. I remember there was a dressmaker called Miss Creegan, who lived in an old farmhouse. Maeve used to get her clothes made by this woman, because she couldn't get anything off the peg to fit her."

At home the issue carried no stigma at all. Her mother Maureen did everything in her power not to make any concession to the idea that her daughter's weight might be a problem.

"At home," Maeve said, "I never felt fat. At home I felt very loved and very special." But outside the house she became so self-conscious about her size that in adolescence she felt lonely and already "out of the race", convinced that fat people didn't get on. She was also tortured by the idea that everybody was looking at her, so she stooped or slouched to appear smaller than she was (many of these feelings she used later when writing about the the overweight Benny in Circle of Friends).

As a young teenager, unlike her classmates at Holy Child Killiney, Maeve had never had a boyfriend. Instead, she played to the crowd, learning to cover up her anxieties with a self-deprecating brand of humour. She'd forever be telling stories at her own expense. As an adult it became her trademark.

She once put her lack of success with boys down to an absence of opportunity. She didn't have an older brother who might bring home a boy of suitable age. William, her brother, was eight years her junior.

The first opportunity came her way at 14 or 15. The cinema in Dun Laoghaire was a regular Saturday treat for Maeve and she would look enviously at those girls who had boyfriends.

Finally, a boy did ask her out to the cinema, to see the romantic comedy Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Maeve was thrilled. At last she had joined "the gang". But the boy rang the night before and spoiled it all. He said he'd meet her inside the cinema. She said he might as well have slapped her face.

At 16 an alternative solution to her lack of boyfriend arose in the form of Marlon Brando. She plastered her bedroom with pictures of him. There were, however, other opportunities to meet real boys.

Every summer for 12 years, her parents William and Maureen took the family back to where their own romance had begun: Ballybunion. In the 1950s Ballybunion was a joyous place, full of friends who would meet up every summer. The Binchys would start preparing three weeks in advance, Maeve packing a bottle of St Blonde shampoo and another of peroxide, on the basis that blondes have all the fun.

Gangs of girls and boys hunted in packs in Ballybunion. To Maeve and many other teenagers, here was unbridled excitement and anticipation and freedom, unlike anything they'd experienced all year.

At 14 or 15, as her thoughts turned to boys, she would go to her first dance here, and anticipate her first kiss and perhaps have a taste of alcohol at a picnic party down among the sand hills, as she described in Echoes.

And then he would pause suggestively, and the audience would corpse themselves laughing.

For Maeve's first dance she wore a 16-shilling dress in turquoise and white from Clerys. In search of a tan, she made up a mixture of Nivea and Brown Nugget boot polish. She applied this concoction to her face, which set off her white cardigan nicely but made her, as she put it, "very dangerous to dance with".

Generally, her apprehension added considerably to her problems. Expectations were high. Her younger sisters, Joan and Renie, would crane their necks around the main door of the ballroom to see how she was getting on, expecting her to emerge later that night with a future husband.

Irish Independent

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