As the tenth anniversary of her death approaches, friends and acquaintances recall her formidable and enriching spirit
Maeve Binchy never spoke to me about her books. The characters, settings, structures and themes of her novels, of which more than 40 million have been sold worldwide, were never discussed between us.
Some writers I know love to witter on about their work, as do I on occasions, but Maeve never did, at least not to me. I have often wondered why this was the case. Was it due to professional modesty? Did completed work bore her? Or was she sensitive to possible criticism that such a discussion might produce?
Over time, I realised that such conversations would have been irrelevant since she and her novels were symbiotic. She had created an international brand, Maeve Binchy, which always delivered the goods. With the Maeve Binchy brand, whether in person or on the page, you got this very likeable, companionable, funny, larger than life, and above all, Irish storyteller. Discussion was unnecessary.
The critics had put her novels in the category of popular literature, where the adjective “popular”, regardless of success, is a putdown. The influence of literary modernism has long been the benchmark for many literary critics, where easy reader accessibility is seen as unbecoming and allusive narratives are favoured.
But there are different ways of attaining writing greatness and some writers, like Maeve Binchy, achieve greatness in the simplicity of their relationship with their readers which often disguises a deeper sophistication of character and narrative. It is quite a feat to be invariably delightful in your work, which Maeve was, and in this respect alone she was a great writer.
Her readers were and are mainly women. Before Maeve, books like hers were set in the England of Barbara Taylor Bradford or the America of Jacqueline Susann. Maeve’s stories, like herself, were quintessentially Irish.
Her success enfranchised a generation of Irish women to believe in themselves, but equally, introduced the reading world to an Ireland it had not known of before. Irish female writers with international reputations such as Marian Keyes and Cathy Kelly have acknowledged their debt to trailblazing Maeve Binchy.
We were friends for the best part of 20 years. Because Gordon Snell, Maeve’s husband, is a golfer, as am I, a group of us went down every year in July to play in Tramore, Co Waterford. While we golfed, Maeve worked, often on personalising shoe-box loads of greeting cards to booksellers in Australia or the USA.
She was an attractive lady, large in height and beam, but already severely bent over by osteoarthritis. She carried with her a walking stick, an ingenious device acquired in New York that folded up into a square not much bigger than a pack of cards but which sprang out into a full-length cane when produced from her handbag.
She loved mad dinner parties, going to the dogs, trips on the river, crazy stories, songs, hymns and ballads, jokes, anecdotes, news about well-known public figures, bawdy limericks.
An inner steel to her, seen in her rigorous devotion to work, was hardly surprising in a writer whose books sold so many copies. Whenever we met, she would invariably look at me through her searchingly blue school teacher’s eyes and ask, “What are you working on at the moment?” She expected a concise, coherent response, which in turn forced me to think clearly of what I was working on in order to reply in the succinct terms she expected.
Maeve wrote with an implicit understanding of everyday Irish life
Maeve and Gordon lived without pretension in a small, cosy, terraced cottage in Dalkey. When the two Hollywood film producer ladies who brought Circle of Friends to the screen eventually arrived in Ireland they came out to visit Maeve. Over drinks, looking around the modest house, one of them could no longer contain herself. “OK, we get it,” she said to Maeve, as if a big joke was being played, “now tell us, where do you really live?”
Maeve wrote compulsively and with an implicit understanding of everyday Irish life. After reading her novel Night of Rain and Stars, set in Greece, I inquired how she had learned all the Greek stuff, which comes across so authentically. She picked up a tiny volume from the table beside her. From this,” she said, holding up the Collins Gem travel guide to Greece.
Maeve’s self-reflection sometimes extended to a sense of fatality. “The Binchys are not long livers,” she said to me on more than one occasion. Her father had died aged 64, and her sister, Renie, also died in her mid-sixties.
Cardiac disease greatly curtailed Maeve’s mobility towards the end, and even a short walk from the car into the house was a challenge, but she remained determined to enjoy life.
Sitting next to her at a barbecue one chilly summer’s evening, I was frozen and wearing several layers. Beside me, Maeve had on a light, short-sleeved summer dress. “You’re making me cold just looking at you,” I told her.
She smiled brightly and reached across. “Take my hand,” she said.
She was as warm as toast.
That winter, over a long lunch, we conceived a novel that would have several writers, a headlong romp in which the reader would be left to guess which author was the hand behind each chapter. The result was Sister Caravaggio, a page-turning frolic in which Maeve was the driving force. It remains a gem, her only known collaboration, in which her energy and humour are ascendant.
She was unforgettable, a force field of power. It was as if everyone in the room was suddenly charged with her almost nuclear-level source of energy. Maeve’s powerfulness radiated intensely in the moment and can still be felt in her books.
But 10 years after her death, it is the absence of that force field that is so noticeable for me, as if a star has died, taking with it its light and potency. A star. That is what I miss of her the most.
‘Sister Caravaggio’ by Maeve Binchy, Peter Cunningham, Neil Donnelly, Cormac Miller, Éilis Ni Duibhne, Mary O’Donnell and Peter Sheridan is published by Liberties Press
Peter Cunningham’s most recent novel, ‘Freedom is a Land I Cannot See’, is published by Sandstone Press
Maeve’s first career was as a school teacher, and the months of July and August spelt the opportunity to travel the world. She used the ABC shipping guide to plan ambitious trips, beyond regular passenger routes, to Tunisia, Singapore, Morocco, Hong Kong, Israel and Palestine and other destinations.
Interrogated on a long-distance plane journey by a fellow passenger as to how a school teacher could afford to go to Hong Kong for the summer holidays, she recalled (in an Irish Times article of 1968) fearing that “my bank manager could well be waiting on the tarmac in Dublin with the same words on his lips”!
The UCD Maeve Binchy Travel Award, established in 2014 with the generous support of Gordon Snell, commemorates Maeve’s love of travel and adventure as well as her world-celebrated creative writing. It is open to any humanities student in UCD, Maeve’s alma mater, and the application for this €4,000 bursary involves explaining in one page where one wants to travel and why – the more adventurous, the better.
Already we have a long list of distinguished holders of the award who have embarked on exciting travels and successful writing careers: Henrietta McKervey, John McHugh, Aaron O’Farrell, Ryan Murphy, Rosa Jones, Gráinne O’Daly, Sree Sen and Declan Toohey. Vive the spirit of Maeve!
Margaret Kelleher is Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature, UCD
When you say ‘Maeve’ in conversations about writing and writers, everyone knows whom you’re speaking about. Maeve Binchy inspired a generation of writers – me included – to put pen to paper and write our stories. I remember being so excited to hear that she was coming to Coolock Library to give a talk to a writers’ group, and taking a half-day’s annual leave to go to it. I was utterly astonished, and impressed that a writer of her stature – No.1 bestseller, worldwide – would come to talk to such a small gathering of aspiring authors.
She was immensely funny, wise and encouraging. We listened, enthralled. Afterwards, I very shyly approached her to say that I was getting my first novel published the following year. It was 1989 and City Girl was due out in the spring. She was genuinely delighted for me, and immediately asked had I an agent. “No,” I said, “I’m hoping to get one.”
“Choosing an agent is like choosing a husband, difficult and individual,” she said briskly. “I’m going to give you the names of three.”
I was gobsmacked by her generosity. But this was Maeve, kind to her core, and thus began a lovely friendship. She set the bar high.
When Maeve was writing Echoes, she told me and my brother she was starting with the characters around the age of 10. She’d done that with Light a Penny Candle too, because, she said, I think that’s the age at which children become interesting, it’s when they start to become the people they’re going to be. What did we think? Did we agree?
She gave me jobs to do: catalogue her clippings, organise her books, show her how to use her new laptop. I had no expertise at any of this, but that wasn’t the point. Even though her role in my life was that of a great adviser, she made me think I was advising her.
A friend once told me that she liked how I talked to her teenage daughter, that I asked her opinion about things, that
I assumed her viewpoint was important. She said: “I can see you were very well aunted.” I hadn’t realised this was in any way unusual: it was just how Maeve, and all my aunts, talked to me. Someone else once described Maeve to me as “the aunt everyone wished they had”.
Sarah Binchy is the producer of RTÉ’s ‘Sunday Miscellany’
The last time I met Maeve Binchy was at an awards event for debut writers. She was generous as always in her praise, encouraging those who had seen their work in print for the first time, telling them that just as she was a published writer, so were they.
Then, despite the fact that she was in poor health at that point, she posed patiently for photographs with everyone.
Afterwards, as we were chatting together, she recalled, with lots of laughter, seeing her own book on sale in bookshops for the first time and the terror of full shelves because she was sure nobody was buying it, when actually it was because the booksellers were run off their feet restocking it. She said that she never really lost that feeling of quiet terror when a book came out that this might be the one that nobody would buy.
But of course that never happened, because Maeve’s books so wonderfully reflect her own kind-hearted, non-judgmental view of the world, and because readers still want to lose themselves in plots where people makes mistakes but always find hope for redemption.
I love that she is still remembered with the same affection that she had for the characters in her novels, alongside the respect she had for the readers who bought them in their millions.
I’m grateful to her for lighting the world, not with a penny candle, but with her megawatt talent. And I’m glad that even though she’s no longer with us, her light still shines brightly.
I had the honour of being the last writer to be reviewed by Maeve before her death, and she was characteristically generous, not just in reviewing my book but in inviting me to lunch to celebrate.
She and Gordon laid on at least one bottle of champagne, perhaps two, along with a three-course meal. She barely knew me, and yet she might have been my own aunt, such was the warmth she showed me that day and the pride she took in my fledgling career.
Maeve was a wonderful writer, but she was also really good at the tricky business of being a successful writer. She understood what lots of people don’t – that one person’s success doesn’t come at the expense of anyone else.
“Success is not like a cake that needs to be divided,” she said. “It’s more like a heap of stones – a cairn. If someone is successful, they add a stone to the cairn.”
Maeve was also quite formidable – I think that’s in danger of being lost as she becomes a national treasure. She could hold a room with terrifying charisma. She dispensed her famous advice with authority. She was quite majestic as she went about the country.
Just as the world smells of fresh paint to Queen Elizabeth, so too it did for Maeve, as an aunt and uncle of mine discovered when they invited her and Gordon to their home in Laois. No sooner was a room booked for them in the local hotel than the scaffolding went up.
The place was freshly painted by the time Maeve arrived.
I remember just two novels in our house when I was growing up. One was Walter Macken, the other was Maeve Binchy’s Light a Penny Candle.
Both belonged to my mother, and the only one I read – devoured – was Maeve’s. I met her once, at the height of her fame, and what struck me was her curiosity. I reread her work a few years back when I worked for the Echoes Festival in Dalkey.
What a joy it was to hear other authors discuss Maeve’s influence. She lit the torch for a new generation of Irish women writers. The most appealing aspect of Maeve’s writing for me is its authenticity. Her characters are believable, and their troubles universally relatable. She understood that people are flawed and behave in contradictory ways.
It means her heroes sometimes disappoint and irritate and her villains are given a chance at redemption.
Maeve was unfairly judged as insubstantial and lightweight by literary snobs. Perhaps because she made success look so easy. But, it takes talent, skill and practice to write with a light touch about dark themes. I think her work should be studied by aspiring writers as a masterclass in creating memorable characters that engage readers to the last page.
‘The Amusements’ by Aingeala Flannery (Sandycove) is out now