Ten years ago this month, Irish fiction lost one of its most endearing, vivid characters. Credited for tackling the big issues, from abortion and depression to infidelity and divorce, with an impressively light touch, Binchy was one of the first big chroniclers of a quickly changing Ireland. Her successful career spanned 17 novels, three plays, countless collections of short stories and a treasure trove of journalism.
“Though her pages were rife with faithless lovers, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies and even murder, Ms Binchy resisted being described as a romance novelist. For one thing, she pointed out, her heroines were less inclined to win the dashing hero than they were to learn to live, quite capably, without him,” The New York Times noted in its obituary of the writer.
“Nowadays, women realise that they are dealt a hand of cards and must play it,” Binchy herself told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. “There are no makeovers in my books. The ugly duckling does not become a beautiful swan. She becomes a confident duck able to take charge of her own life and problems.”
Employing the argot of a more modern Ireland and selling ‘quiet, domestic’ books by the absolute bucketload, Binchy walked so a whole generation of Irish writers could run. Ten years after her death aged 72, it’s clear that Binchy still wields extraordinary influence, and her place in people’s affections remains resolutely unchanged.
Author of The Wedding Party
Maeve Binchy was a genius. A genius at understanding people and the world, and in her writing, she translated that into something the rest of us could understand. Maeve made you feel, like all great writers, that you were not alone. She did it with brio, kindness and a pen that was both laser-like in its precision and utterly without judgement. Maeve, more than any other writer, showed humanity with all its flaws in such a way that we understood, felt understood and could see what had made people/her characters do what they did. Reading her was like working on a PhD in psychology. I devoured Light a Penny Candle when it came out, and the embryonic writer in my heart consumed it eagerly. Her work, like all writers’, moved and changed, from the sharp, epic brilliance of the Oprah-famed Tara Road, to the cleverly linked-up stories of Heart and Soul. She wrote about pain and darkness, but the chiaroscuro of her pen meant we saw the light, too. She was funny. Funny with one-liners so pithy that I’m afraid to read her when I write in case I inadvertently repeat her words. She paved the way for many female Irish writers to write about the here and now, the minutiae of life that is often dismissed in favour of what some people think of as great themes. Maeve Binchy wrote about the great themes in all our lives, which was her genius. Dear, wonderful Maeve — she will live on.
Author of A Talented Man and winner of the UCD Maeve Binchy Travel Award
Maeve’s husband Gordon once said, “Maeve plunged at the keyboard like a swimmer into the sea.” Consider this perfect opening to her early short story Notting Hill Gate: “Everyone knew that Daphne’s friend Mike was a s**t and, to give us our due, most of us said so. But she laughed and said we were full of rubbish. She agreed, still laughing, to take the address of the battered wife place, just in case, then we gave her a lovely fur jacket that Mike wouldn’t be able to share, and she left us and married him. We never saw her again.” Thanks to the Maeve Binchy UCD Travel Award, in 2014, I explored the shipping forecast through its 31 sea areas. I brought her collected journalism, Maeve’s Times, away with me. Partly so I’d always have something good to read, but also because I was trying to decipher how she managed to write with such common sense and compassion on both serious and light subjects — often in the same article. Her fans always appreciated her honesty and humanity; it’s heartening to know that new generations of readers and writers are doing the same. Swimming lessons, Maeve style.
Author of The Years That Followed
Around the time that Maeve Binchy and I first met, I’d spent years steeped in the stories of Irish immigrants in Kilburn and Cricklewood, stories that would form the basis of [my non-fiction book] An Unconsidered People: The Irish in London. But it was some time before I came across Maeve’s play, Deeply Regretted By. It was first broadcast on RTÉ in 1978, starring Dónall Farmer and Joan O’Hara, and directed by Louis Lentin. I was struck, again, by Maeve Binchy’s clear-eyed compassion and understanding. The play explores the devastating effects on an English widow in Kilburn who discovers that her recently deceased Irish husband has another family ‘at home’ in Ireland. She learns that she has no rights. That her husband’s body will be returned to his ‘real’ family, and that she will be left to come to terms with the fact that the past decades of her married life have been a lie. A young priest tries to navigate the sensitive terrain that lies between the two families: a no-man’s land of grief and betrayal. But I also found the play to be both moving and accurate in its broader portrayal of the challenges and complexities of Irish immigrant communities in London in the 1960s.
Sarah Maria Griffin
Author of Other Words For Smoke
I think about Maeve Binchy now almost every time I sit down to write. Her pace, her no-nonsense approach to the craft. Her ability to capture dialogue and character so acutely that the cast of her works still feel like people I knew for a time. It is all made up of a keen and profound curiosity about other people, which is a way that I want to move in this world, too. I never got the chance to meet her, but in the legacy she left behind, I am told again and again that she loved to talk, and to listen. The books are alight with that — with chat, and bold, internal monologue. Real voice. I feel like a very new student of her work, and have a long journey to go before I reach the end, and I know that as I move though her volumes, her influence will continue to move me in my own practice. In some ways, I am frustrated to have come to her work so late — I could have done with Echoes or Circle of Friends back when I was in college. But I also very firmly believe that sometimes a writer lands in your life at exactly the right time. To shake things up. To make you more curious.
Author of Listening Still
In 2019, the editor of my recently acquired Swedish publisher invited me to lunch in Dalkey with Gordon Snell, Maeve’s husband, and Anne, Maeve’s sister. That wonderful editor, now retired, told me that she had signed Maeve to their list decades prior and, ever since, they had remained firm friends. It was her kindness, she said, her realism about life, her understanding of how people worked, and her ability to get all of that down in print that made her committed to Maeve’s genius for the rest of her working days. I admit to having been nervous sitting with the family of one of the giants of Irish writing. I told them it was Maeve who taught me to listen on streets and in cafés to capture the words to fill my pages with life’s ordinary everyday, its heartbreak and its joy. I became the most accomplished thief, I said, thanks to her. To this day, I am testament to how Maeve’s skill and graciousness continues to bring so many international publishers to our shores, offering deals borne on the coat-tails of her brilliance.
Author of Diving For Pearls
From a young age, I felt this niggling desire to create. Throughout my early childhood, it manifested as a love of painting. However, when I was about 11, I saw an interview with Maeve Binchy, which put the gauntlet to write a novel in my head. If bucket lists had existed back then, this goal would have gone straight to the top of mine. This was around the same time that Windows 95 was launched, and we got our first family computer. I set about learning to type using Mavis Beacon, endlessly keying ‘ASDF’ while a cartoon chameleon was rewarded with flies for every letter I typed correctly. After learning these basics, I began to write my first ‘novel’ in Microsoft Word. By the age of 13, I had completed a manuscript, Death of a Doll, totalling 64,000 words. Of course, it’s the ramblings of a pre-teen, and I cringe to think of it. However, there was no going back. I was hooked. Now, as I think back, I am grateful to Maeve Binchy for that initial spark of inspiration. She presented a creative vista that has defined my life to this day.
Author of The Unexpected Love Story of Lexie Byrne, Aged 39 ½
I often stand outside Maeve Binchy’s beautiful home in Dalkey and give a nod of thanks to the master. I think of this road she walked, her mind whizzing and buzzing with story ideas. I never physically met her, but that doesn’t matter. It feels like I did. Like I knew her intimately, because I hold her in my heart. This prolific writer was my first introduction to books. To reading novels. She gave me all those wonderfully rounded, funny, flawed, strong female characters that inspired me to write. Characters that I still remember vividly today. Maeve’s women supported one another, oozed kindness, nurtured friendships, tackled problems with an inner strength and courage that mostly couldn’t been seen on the outside. Friendships that lasted a lifetime.
Like Elizabeth and Aisling in Light A Penny Candle. These characters had a lifelong effect on me. I vividly remember reading it, under the covers, with my mini torch, at a very young age, and while I didn’t understand the politics of war or relationships, or the Catholic church, I understood the women. Maeve had this ability to see every woman — and, in return, we saw ourselves on her pages. She got into the heads of regular women like no one else could. Maeve wrote so fluidly with such warmth and colour. She taught me that ordinary people also lead extraordinary lives, that my characters didn’t need bells and whistles, just honesty. Within honesty is story. Mostly, she taught me to listen and, in turn, taught me to write. I would watch interviews where she’d talk of listening to people on buses or in cafés, and I started to do the same. Before I started writing my first novel, I had a folder of conversations I’d overheard. To this day, I still dip into the torn plastic folder I called ‘Maeve Binchy’s Earwigging’.
Author of The Quiet Whispers Never Stop
I feel like everyone had a copy of Circle of Friends in their house, and I remember the huge thrill I felt when I told my mum I was going to the movie premiere in the Savoy Cinema in Dublin. I’m fairly sure she thought I was joking. It was in May 1995 and I was 19 years old, skinny, skint and completely out of my depth. I went with my boyfriend at the time and I have no idea how he got tickets. At Trinity, I had the kind of life back then that meant one night I’d be waitressing at a society event and the next I’d be attending. I just got on with it and tried to remember everyone’s s**t smelled the same. The premiere of Circle of Friends was different though. I guess you could say it was the Normal People/Conversations With Friends of its day. There was a lot of excitement about all these Hollywood stars in town. I had never been to a film premiere before, and I didn’t have money to get my hair or makeup done, so I did it all myself, wore an old, black formal dress and borrowed heels from my friend. There was this frisson in the cinema — everyone was glamorous and happy and excited — and I remember vividly how unbelievably beautiful Minnie Driver was. She was radiant, glorious. Maeve seemed very calm at the centre of it all. I did not dare talk to her, or anyone, but being my clumsy self in borrowed shoes, I almost toppled into Maeve, righting myself at the last moment. She was warm and friendly, smiled as I apologised profusely. I’m sure she could see the girl from the field trying to pass with all the film industry hoi polloi, but she let me away with it. I had no idea back then that I would end up being a writer myself. It wasn’t even a dream I held, but I’m grateful that Maeve made me feel I was welcome, that I could be myself.
Author of Yours, Mine, Ours
Maeve Binchy was the first Irish female writer whose stories were full of people that I ‘knew’. I could relate to the characters in her books, which was a thrill. Her gift was to pack a serious punch with a lightness of touch. All of her books are centred around serious themes but written with such elegance and skill that they are consistently engaging and page-turning. I remember watching her being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and Terry Wogan and feeling so proud of her. There she was, this wonderful Irish writer, smart, funny and successful on a global scale. She wore her success so lightly, it never seemed to affect her in the slightest. I had the great fortune to meet her a few times, and she was as charming, funny, warm and wonderful as I had imagined. One of my most treasured possessions is a note she wrote to me saying, “It’s really great being a writer, isn’t it? We spend time thinking up stories and they call it work.” She was a trailblazer for all of us female writers who follow in her big footsteps.
Author of Factory Girls
I’ll always be grateful to my mother for introducing me to Maeve Binchy’s books as a teenager. I sometimes suspect she did this for the same reason that she once sent me — aged just 13 — to live in the USA for a summer with relatives I’d never met: she wanted me to experience life outside of The Troubles. Maeve Binchy was, for teenage me, a rosy retreat from the uncomfortable world in which I was living. But although I loved taking refuge in the likes of Tara Road and Circle of Friends, even then, I knew that my own writing was following a different path, following in the footsteps of Pat McCabe and Robert McLiam Wilson. I’ve sometimes thought that Maeve Binchy’s work had a much stronger influence on my life rather than writing. The warmth of her work and her love for Dublin influenced my decision to attend university and eventually raise my family here.
Author of Boys Don’t Cry
Maeve Binchy was my first true love as a reader. I remember on our weekly trips to the local library, I would fill my card with Maeve, always with huge excitement to see which of her collection would be available. So engrossed in her storytelling was I, that once, aged 12, I closed the car door on my finger, with the child lock on, as my head was buried in Circle of Friends. But that’s the thing with a Binchy book. Once you start, you just won’t be able to put it down. Maeve’s storytelling is so utterly unique. You are not reading when reading one of her books. You are sitting around a campfire listening to a story being told. Her characters are so utterly real. Her warmth, her empathy, her humour just flies off each and every page. She is my go-to when I’m feeling down, or in a rut. My ultimate comfort blanket. What an incredibly rare and special gift it is to make a reader feel like that. Thank you, Maeve. I am forever grateful for what you gave me as a reader, but even more so as a writer, paving the way for us all.
Author of The Art Of Falling
Often, at home in my kitchen, as I move a pan off the heat, I’ll associate this small action with Maeve Binchy. I credit one of her characters — I’m pretty sure it was Cathy from Scarlet Feather — with teaching me this very simple culinary truth: if you put a pan on the heat and it’s cooking too quickly, you can always take it off again. That’s the thing about Maeve Binchy’s writing. So assured is her story telling, so real her characters, that you are utterly convinced by them. You feel intimately connected to these people who you forget are fictional. Her generosity toward other writers is legendary. I never met Maeve in person. But in 2013, when I was just starting out as a writer, I was enormously encouraged by winning the Merriman Short Story Competition in memory of Maeve Binchy, the prize money for which she’d donated to Cumann Merriman before her death. Another example of that renowned generosity.
Poet (Cracked Asphalt) and recipient of the Maeve Binchy Travel Award
I visited an old haunt of Maeve’s this weekend. Emilie at The Gutter Bookshop in Dalkey has a clear view of it every day. Finnegan’s pub was bustling at the time, people wrapped around their beers, squinting in the sun with an expression of mild amusement. The fondness for a pub as a regular place for the writer’s soul is an alien sentiment for me. Back home, pubs are a place of shame, puke or defiant emancipation. I’d only read about authors and poets who changed the world one pint at a time. So, when I sat outside Finnegan’s, hair limp from saltwater, I wondered at it all. I’m not interested in specifics, didn’t ask to see the exact table Maeve occupied. Why bother with specifics when I have her stories to exhilarate my imagination? I felt close to her, a woman who’s really a stranger. Her brilliance and warmth as a journalist and author have been inspirational. I never met her (I wish I had) but she is a part of my senses. It was enough to know she was there, to feel a little bit of her. Sitting outside Finnegan’s pub, mildly amused with the sun, she came alive. She is alive.
Author of Breaking Point
Everyone knows Maeve Binchy’s novels were brilliant, but for me — and maybe it’s sacrilegious to say this — her words of advice on how to lead a happy life are my favourite thing she’s ever written. They are simple and sensible and deeply useful. If I’m ever having a bit of a self-pitying day, I’ll read these words of wisdom and feel ready to take on the world again. “Learn to type. Learn to drive. Have fun. Write postcards. (Letters take too long and you won’t do it; a postcard takes two minutes.) Be punctual. Don’t worry about what other people are thinking. They are not thinking about you. Write quickly. (Taking longer doesn’t usually make it better.) Get up early. See the world. Call everybody by their first name, from doctors to presidents. Have parties. Don’t agonise. Don’t regret. Don’t fuss. Never brood. Move on. Don’t wait for permission to be happy. Don’t wait for permission to do anything. Make your own life.” It’s the best advice I’ve ever read.
I love her journalism too, and I return to that often. I have her collected columns, Maeve’s Time, by my bedside. The columns are perfect vignettes of the ordinary lives she was famous for portraying, and they are nearly always funny. Her column, titled My Theodora Story, from April 6, 1991, is one of the funniest journalism stories I’ve ever read, but it’s even funnier to hear her tell it herself. You can find it on YouTube under the title Maeve Binchy Tells Her Veal Casserole Story.
Author of Trouble
I first came across Maeve Binchy’s books as a kid, when I swiped my mum’s copy of Circle of Friends to read under the covers with a torch after bedtime. It tripped me out to find the city where I lived depicted in the pages. Who knew Dublin could be so Hollywood. Adding in an orphan — for some reason every child in the 1990s was obsessed with orphans — I quickly fell in love. Her books were quick and funny and surprising. I loved the women Binchy created; cosy and familiar, they reminded me of my mother and aunts. There was, and still is, such a warmth and safety to be found within her work, always reminding me how kind and caring the world can be.
Author of Life Before Us
I was weaned on Maeve Binchy books — or it feels that way. She was the first Irish writer I read as an adult, and from the first sentence of the first book I picked up (Light a Penny Candle), I knew I’d found a winner. Here was a writer who was tuned into the Irish psyche, who created characters we’d all come across, and who could weave a completely believable tale around those characters that engaged and entertained and enthralled. I remember her saying once that she didn’t write about ugly ducklings turning into swans; she wrote about them turning into confident ducks. Her people lived in the same world as the rest of us, and made the same mistakes, and hurt in the same places as us. Spoke like us too: every word of dialogue rang true. I had the audacity, when I was writing my first book, to contact Maeve and ask if she’d read my manuscript and tell me what she thought, and I got a lovely response from her secretary explaining that it wasn’t something Maeve did. Of course it wasn’t — she’d have been inundated. To this day, she remains an influence, and an inspiration.