Sunday 19 November 2017

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

Piers Dudgeon

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.

At the Central Ballroom, Maurice Mulcahy was the resident orchestra. Maeve remembered that Mulcahy himself used to gee up his audience with clichéd innuendo that would set the dance floor alight in a riot of laughter and whistling.

He would come to the microphone and ask for silence and make a serious 'lost or found' announcement that a certain girl had gone down to the sand hills last night and lost her. . .

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.

Inevitably, the reality turned out to be different. The dances started at about 8pm and the pubs didn't close until later, which meant that to begin with there were many more girls than boys in attendance. So crowded was the cloakroom that Maeve couldn't even get a sixpenny spray of Evening in Paris which was available there.

The few young fellas who didn't drink and were out for a dance appeared to have been snapped up by girls a good deal older and more experienced than her.

No one asked her to dance, and when she saw the eager faces of her sisters she was so desperate not to show how completely unsuccessful she was that she made a few passes, twirling by the half-open door in front of them as if her partner was just out of view.

A school friend remembers Maeve coming back from Ballybunion one year saying that she had fallen in love with a fellow called Matt. Maeve showed her a photo of a big guy six or seven years older than her and said that she spent the whole summer hovering around hoping to bump into him. "He featured for many years and it was always her hope that he would fall in love with her."

That was Ballybunion, a harmless '50s fantasy land in which everyone had fun at no one else's expense. It seems likely that Maeve's crush was the oldest son of the local doctor, Dr Hannan, a friend of her father. Sadly, Matt died in early middle age.

Life may have been simpler back in the '50s, but for Maeve occasionally it was so hurtful that even her sense of humour was not enough to protect her sensitive soul.

In 1956, the year of her Leaving Cert, she turned 17. She was approaching the end of her time at school and was nervously awaiting the results on which her passage into university depended when she was invited to a dance at the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire.

It was to be a big 'do', a dance given by the parents of two of her school friends.

Maeve borrowed a dress from a cousin and had a big velvet band let into the front. Diamante earrings were found to complete the outfit, but with frequent practice earlier in the day they had bitten into her ears, so that by the time of the dance she'd had to put patches of plaster on her lobes. Maeve painted the plaster blue to match her dress, though wasn't quite certain she had done the right thing.

But then, as she was leaving the house, Maureen yet again came to the rescue. She looked at her daughter proudly and said, "You look so beautiful you'll take the sight out of their eyes."

Alas, it was a cataclysmic failure of a night, one that would inspire what her editor years later described as "one of the most powerful scenes she ever wrote – the party scene in Circle of Friends"'. Nobody – not one single person – danced with her, and this was a private party. She was there with her friends and she couldn't hide her utter failure.

Her parents waited up for her until she came home, wanting to know not only that she was safe, but about every heartbeat of every dance. Maeve told them that she had been danced off her feet all night long.

Long afterwards she admitted this was a very black time. If earlier she had not dared admit a discrepancy between what her mother Maureen was always telling her about her beauty and the reality, she surely did now.

Irish Independent

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