There is a secret article in the Irish Constitution, penned in invisible ink, which states that any time Circle of Friends is on telly you must watch it.
Even if you already have it on DVD. Even if you have it 'taped' on 'the box'. Even if, like me, you saw it in the cinema in 1995 and have rewatched it at least 20 times since. Even then, you must surrender the 103 minutes, plus time for ads, and settle in with Bernadette 'Benny' Hogan and the residents of 1950s' Knockglen.
Such is the power of this law that TV3 - or Virgin Media One, if we're insisting on new money - seems compelled to screen Circle of Friends at least once a year, often as a wee bank holiday Sunday treat.
When it happens, a whisper goes around social media. "Circle of Friends starting in ten on TV3," flash the tweets. "Circle of Friends is on telly!" ping the WhatsApp groups. "Have you ever read the book?" gushes anyone who has read the book, because the book is where the real magic happens. And so, the circle of life of Circle of Friends continues.
Maeve Binchy's 700-page classic turns 30 this year. It tells the story of Benny, a beloved only child of over-protective parents who hope she'll one day take up with the repellent Sean Walsh and take over the family drapery.
Benny struggles to inhabit a body that works against her by being too tall and too broad every which way, and she feels like a lump beside her best friend Eve - an orphan taken in by the nuns after her mother's aristocratic family turned their back on her.
With school finished, Benny is headed for UCD, with her proud parents footing the bill. Eve joins her after swallowing her pride and asking the high-falutin' family to pay her way.
Benny and Eve are the anchors of the titular circle of friends, which widens at UCD to include the beautiful Nan Mahon, desperate to escape her working-class background and violent, alcoholic father.
Then there's the charming shitehawk Jack Foley, handsome as you like and the son of a doctor. Benny falls for him immediately and to the surprise of many, the feeling is mutual.
Benny is the Cinderella to Jack's Prince Charming, but instead of the clock striking midnight and Benny rushing for her carriage-slash-pumpkin, the clock is striking ten past six and she's rushing for the evening bus back to Knockglen.
Nan, meanwhile, sees a ticket out of her father's house in the form of Eve's posh and dreadful cousin Simon Westward, and the pair begin a secret affair. When Benny's beloved father dies suddenly, her connection to Knockglen becomes more iron-clad than ever, and Jack's immature and arrogant impatience at her absence from the UCD social scene causes his eye to wander.
Nan, newly pregnant with Simon's baby and under pressure to travel for an abortion, with no ring in sight, seizes an opportunity for a dalliance with Jack before falsely revealing that the baby is his, crushing Benny and setting Eve aflame with rage.
Nan ultimately miscarries and the engagement is called off, but for Benny the damage and the hurt are done. She closes out the book at the centre of her circle of friends, with Jack at the cold periphery.
Three decades since publication, and more than 60 years after its setting, this rich tome about friendship and love and class and expectation has found something of a second life among Millennials and the Gen Z Zoomers who are coming hot on their heels. So, what's the Circle of Friends magic that continues to make it such an important cultural touchstone across generations?
Binchy is one of Ireland's most successful writers and her works are known around the world, but the marketing of her novels as Lovely Books for Mams and Grannies and a general aura of "Maeve Binchy = good and warm and comforting" has been prevalent in households up and down Ireland for decades, with her books settling creakily on shelves and bedside lockers like parts of the furniture.
It's a double-edged sword of a legacy because it leans into the stereotype that these kinds of 'comforting' and 'warm' books are not only for women, but are for women of a certain age.
As an author who co-writes the Aisling books that are often classified as 'women's fiction' (God forbid a man might pick it up by mistake) or 'commercial fiction' (ditto a literary lovey might be caught unawares), it can be a frustrating categorisation.
Thankfully, though, there has been pushback on this notion in recent years, with 'popular fiction' writers defending the validity of their vague genre robustly and rightly and with books like Circle of Friends or Marian Keyes's Rachel's Holiday becoming more centred as classic works of literature alongside Joyce and Wilde and Edna O'Brien's seminal 1960 novel The Country Girls.
This blurring of the lines between popular and high culture has meant that books such as Circle of Friends are more likely to be widely read, studied academically and appreciated for the social documents that they are.
Dublin author Sarah Maria Griffin underwent her Circle of Friends indoctrination last year and tweeted: "I feel like some awful, post-English degree hangover kept me from Binchy until now. Like, if I wasn't reading Literary Stuff I was doing something wrong. I am *inside* Circle of Friends and I can actively feel it changing me, like I'm coming up on it. It is a masterpiece."
Binchy dealt a lot in social significance. Circle of Friends is set before the sexual revolution, before the pill and before 'French letters' were readily available. Indeed, contraception was only legalised in Ireland five years before the book was published. The novel acts as both a social document of the time and as a signpost for 2020 readers of the struggles of living in a more repressive Irish society like that of the 1950s.
The young women of the modern-day Repeal movement are well aware of the giant shoulders they stand on, but Circle of Friends offers insight into how far we've come, while reminding us that we still live in the fog of a vicious three-day hangover of how Ireland has treated women. Nan's crisis pregnancy, Eve raised by the nuns, Benny expected to be a Very Good Girl and look after her parents and the family business, once she has the notions of UCD out of her system - these are all experiences of the women of our mothers' and grandmothers' generation, and these are experiences that are still all around us.
Binchy also dealt in the timeless themes of love, friendship, expectation, guilt and shame, as well as a sense of home. I asked a group of recent Circle of Friends readers - men and women in their 20s and 30s - how they associated the book with their lives in 2020 Ireland.
Niamh Murray, (26), from Kildare, said: "Benny's unhappiness with her appearance is something a lot of people today can relate to. As a fellow tall woman, I distinctly remember feeling similarly at her age."
Benny's discomfort in her body, and indeed the discomfort so many women feel by simply taking up space, is palpable throughout the book. Benny's bosom is a great trial to her, as is her anxiety about it not being decently covered while being flanked by the petite Eve and the luminous Nan.
We could talk until the cows come home about Binchy's remarkable skill in creating such distinct and believable and achingly relatable characters and the skilled yet humble dialogue, but really we want to be best friends with Eve, we want to take a scissors to Nan's mane of rich-looking hair and we want to implode at how deeply uncool, deeply loyal and deeply 'us' Benny is.
Ciara Murphy, (30), from Wexford also found herself relating to "issues of self-confidence arising from how women look or are meant to look. I loved Benny. I enjoy her perseverance. I can relate to her in terms of how she measures her worth, and the challenges she experiences in her personal life."
Jack Coughlan, (20), from Cork studied the book for his Leaving Cert in 2017 as the Repeal campaign was really taking shape: "My English teacher was also our SPHE teacher so she explained the reality of abortion in Ireland in an objective way using Nan's story. The book was a nice guide to college too, in a way [and it] proves that you can keep your old friends from 'home' but also meet new people."
This idea of Down Home versus the Big Smoke is something Irish people are all too familiar with - whether they're emigrating to New York or Sydney, or hoofing down the N7 in a JJ Kavanagh bus or, if you're our fictional Aisling, a zippy little Micra.
Sarah Kiely, (32), is from Galway but lives in Co Down: "Probably what resonated most with me is that feeling of a country girl hitting Dublin for the first time. And although times are very different, I have definitely been in scenarios where I felt intimidated by elegant and more worldly women, and very good-looking men."
And 28-year-old Laura King felt the same: "I think the ideas of expectation and obligation are still relevant, and Benny having to commute to Dublin was very real to people I knew in college."
Several new Binchy fans I've encountered have expressed a wish to 'cancel' Jack Foley. Cancel culture wasn't so much of a thing back in the 1950s, or even in the 1990s when the book was published, but today's readers of Circle of Friends would gather in their droves to hold a #JackFoleyIsCancelled party on Twitter. He has the absolute nerve to romance Benny and drive her to the very heights of her insecurities.
Aisling Hussey, (29), from Kerry, felt "so sad for Benny, who kept questioning why Jack wanted to be with her. But I think we are also guilty of questioning our worth from time to time, and wondering 'why me?'."
Jack was played by Chris O'Donnell in the 1995 film, along with his big American head, wojus Irish accent and altogether too many impeccable teeth. Film Jack is also gifted a more sympathetic storyline than in the book; the novel allows Benny the dignity and strength of character to leave Jack on the sidelines after he hurts her horribly.
She endures the manipulation and misogyny of her father's right-hand man Sean Walsh too. Sean is as timeless as Benny. As Aisling Hussey quips: "We will always have creeps like Sean (until we dismantle the patriarchy)."
The legacy of Circle of Friends hummed loudly under the recent TV adaptation of Normal People. Those timeless themes of a fish out of water, class divides, the feeling that you can never really go home again, the fever of young love and lust, the scramble for a condom. While the pandemic gave Normal People the focus it deserved, it halted rehearsals for a first stage production based on Circle of Friends, which had been due to open in Limerick last March and travel to Dublin's Gaiety for the month of April. The posters for the run still hang near my local shop and have been a particularly haunting reminder of what the past few months have snatched from us.
They also reinforce both the gentle, ever-present nature of Circle of Friends and its pulsing popularity. Tipperary's Roseanna Purcell was cast to play Benny and is eager to get back into her shoes. Purcell thinks her generation of oft-maligned Millennials deals just as much in nostalgia as those who came before, and that Circle of Friends taps into that. "When I'm in Dublin I'm just constantly trying to reclaim my sense of where I'm from. [The book] achieves that essence of trying to reclaim your own sense of identity and place."
We have so much to thank Maeve Binchy and Circle of Friends for. Maeve walked so Sally Rooney could run. She walked so I could run. And Benny will run forever, beef to the heel like a Mullingar heifer.
Back in the early 1980s, Maeve Binchy wrote her first novel, Light a Penny Candle - and it made a huge amount of money at the time for a debut.
I was working on The Late Late Show when the book came out, and it was decided to have her on to talk about her new-found success. She had been on before so she was well used to the Late Late format and was a joy to work with.
There was no pussyfooting about with Maeve regarding the money she got - on the contrary, she sent me a letter before her appearance explaining all…
... I'm glad you thought it was a good idea if I wrote to you… I didn't want to be intrusive or pushy… but I thought if I just gave you some background information then it might be a help for you to know what has gone before…
I was on The Late Late Show … on Saturday, March 20. It was in connection with the publishing of Dublin 4 [a short-story collection]. We talked a bit about why I chose that title and whether the people were real and if I actually put real people into stories, which I don't.
Then the conversation broadened and Gay Byrne asked about some aspects of my work, the royal weddings - I said how much I had liked Charles's wedding and hated Anne's - about covering the election in Ireland and how I had been one of the very few journalists watching FitzGerald and Haughey on the night of the Great Debate… surprisingly I also found myself in conversation about Mrs Thatcher and admitting that I did not like her.
Now this time the most interesting thing about me is unfortunately all the money I've made. I don't say 'unfortunately' that I made money… I'm obviously delighted about that… but it's a fact of life that the money interests everyone so I thought I would tell you exactly what I got so that you would know the fact not the rumour.
For writing the novel, which took a year, or 40 weekends to be more precise, £5,000.
The paperback rights were sold to Coronet Books, who paid a record £52,000. I get around 70 per cent of this. The publishers who found me get the rest so I get £34,000.
Then the Americans decided that they would like to buy it... Several publishers made offers so there was another auction and the highest bidder was Viking. This is for hardback rights only. Later there will be another 'auction' for American paperback rights. Viking are actually going to pay me $200,000.
Then it was chosen by the Literary Guild of America as their book of the month for next April. This means that it will be vastly publicised. They paid $50,000; Viking get half and I get half so from this particular deal I get $25,000.
Last week it was sold to a French publisher who is having it translated. They are paying 50,000 francs, which in English money is about £5,000.
To add the whole thing up, it comes to in English money round and about £163,000.
Out of this I will have to pay roughly half in taxes, maybe more. I will have to give 10 per cent to an agent but that will still leave me with about £70-75,000.
This may look very tedious and boastful but I thought it would be better if you knew the exact figures, then you could decide what was and what was not relevant.
Now the next question is what am I going to do with it? I haven't really decided. I don't want people to give me advice about making myself into a tax exile, a limited company, a discretionary trust…
Sadly the last page of the letter is missing - so we'll never know what she proposed to do with the money. But we do know that Maeve enjoyed life with her beloved husband and many friends, and no doubt the money helped.