A long, long time ago, probably in the mid 80s I discovered the books of Maeve Binchy. I remember reading ‘Firefly Summer’, ‘The Copper Beech’ and ‘The Glass Lake’; all charmingly told stories set in small Irish towns, where characters meddled and got into terrible fixes without the need for violence or rampant sex. Reading a Maeve Binchy book was like sipping a hot chocolate in front of a log fire while rain battered the windows and roof, and I would slip into another, altogether gentler, world. Maeve’s books gave me the same feeling of comfort that reading Enid Blyton did when I was a child and I mean that as a sincere compliment. Both women were wonderful story tellers. Of course the fact that Binchy’s stories regularly featured variations of the awkward girl who considered herself unworthy was an added attraction for this young woman who knew how that felt all too well. Maeve herself said “I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks”. Oh how I wished to become a confident duck.
Maeve’s writing came to life because of her ability to tell a story and also because she was a master at creating believable characters. These gifts were also evident in her columns for the Irish Times which were often lively and funny as well as sometimes being poignant and moving. It was Maeve’s ability to capture the human condition that lent such vibrancy to all her writing.
I had the pleasure of meeting Maeve in the early 90’s and was privileged to share a cup of tea with her at her home in Dalkey. At the time I was working as Public Relations Officer for The Alzheimer Society of Ireland and part of my job was to promote our annual fundraising day, National Tea Day. Maeve generously agreed to allow myself and a photographer to visit her at home in order to capture a photo of us sharing a cup of tea which we could use in the publicity for the day. Conscious that not only were we taking her time but also invading her home I was determined to be in and out in a couple of minutes. But that was not how Maeve operated. She made us all tea and we settled down for a chat before attending to the business of the morning.
I am a firm believer that you can tell much about a person by their home – not necessarily how big or small it is but by how it feels, how it is ‘adorned’. Maeve’s home suited her perfectly. She lived in a relatively modest home right in Dalkey village, opening straight onto the street. But once inside the front door you were in Maeve’s world – full of books, comfy looking armchairs, big squishy cushions and cats. Like herself, Maeve’s home was about being comfortable, not flashy or showy. It made you want to kick off your shoes and grab one of the books to read while stroking a sleeping cat!
I remember her telling us that the previous week she had a meeting with some Hollywood people about the movie of her novel Circle of Friends. These guys had flown in from LA and arrived in Dalkey where they declared themselves to be charmed by her ‘cottage’ which was so cute. “But where is your main home?” they asked. Maeve thought this was great craic altogether.
We posed for the photos in her garden and to this day that photo remains one of my most treasured possessions. When we finally left I felt as if I had just spent a couple of hours bathed in glorious sunshine. I was energised and optimistic. I remember I visited The Exchange Bookshop on the way back to my car and bought a card. That evening I sweated for hours as I tried to put into words my thanks to Maeve, not only for her time but also for her positivity, a little of which I seemed to take with me. I failed miserably and I am sure that whatever words I did put on that card were trite and awful. Perhaps this is a chance to put that to rights.
This week tributes are flooding our media about this woman, this writer, who seemed to touch so many of us. Maeve Binchy made you proud to be Irish… not because she was such a famous and respected writer but because she took qualities that are seen to be quintessentially Irish and made them so wonderful. At her heart Maeve was a storyteller, someone who understood that a good story in is the telling as opposed to the plot. Ireland in general and Dublin in particular was in her bone marrow. This was where she felt most herself, where she was most comfortable with being able to talk freely to strangers be it at bus-stops or on national media.
In 2010, she wrote a special article for aspirant writers which appeared in the Irish Independent. In it she explained her theory as to why the Irish are such good writers: “We’re lucky, we’re Irish. We don’t like pauses and silences, we prefer talk and information and conversations that go on and on. So that means we’re half way there. We have an advantage before we even start.” This was Maeve Binchy.
Writer Ian Rankin told Writing.ie founder Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin soon after news of Maeve’s passing broke, “she had time for everybody. Perhaps because her stories came from all of us and for all of us.”
Another hugely successful Irish author, Sheila O Flanagan told writing.ie that she has two particular memories of Maeve: “One is of reading Dublin 4 on the bus and saying to myself ‘but this is exactly what I want to write’ and feeling suddenly very confident that it was possible and very grateful that Maeve had written it.
And the second is going to a lovely, lovely party at her house where she invited all the women writers and booksellers she knew. She was so generous and warm and welcoming to everyone. Patricia Scanlan and I then got the Dart home, and we were so excited and so full of enthusiasm that we were talking all about Maeve and her books and didn’t realise that we’d got one going in the wrong direction until we were nearly in Bray.”
Author Sarah Webb remember’s Maeve’s generosity of spirit and sense of fun too, “Maeve was a huge inspiration to me as a young writer. I was the neighbour’s child – my mum lived on the same road as the Binchy family and growing up, I heard all about Maeve and her writing career. She was the pride of Dalkey and everyone in the village was thrilled at her success. After I published my first novel, I met Maeve again at a charity book launch and we had our photo taken together in mad hats. She kept everyone amused the whole way through the shoot – she had such a great sense of humour. She asked me about my book and gave me such encouragement that day, I’ve never forgotten her kindness. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to talk to Maeve on many occasions about books, writing and publishing and she’s always been a rock of sense. She will be terribly missed but never forgotten.”
The last time I saw Maeve was in June at the Dalkey Book Festival. Every year on the Sunday of this wonderful weekend, Maeve would hold court in Finnegan’s Pub and her loyal fans would gather to hear her special brand of witty wisdom. She usually assumed (rightly I would think) that most of the audience were aspiring writers and while we munched on smoked salmon on brown bread and sipped Bucks Fizz (this is Dalkey), she would deliver a mix of cheerful encouragement and useful tips.
This year however was different. She began by chiding us for not writing that novel. She told us that she assumed after her talk last year that she would be inundated with manuscripts for her appraisal. She seemed disappointed that she had received nothing. So, adopting her previous teacher persona, she said that since we were clearly not writing anything, she would read us a story. We settled back as she delivered a typical Maeve short story, written about that same unsure young woman we had met before, which featured Dalkey and was written specially for the Book Festival.
My last memory of her is of her chatting with my elderly mother who earnestly asked her how she was. “Sure I am fine, fine,” she insisted although she didn’t look it. “I have lots of help and I manage.” No complaint, no moaning although we both felt that her sunny nature was slightly dimmed by a cloud of pain and discomfort.
I am looking forward to the coming weeks when I am hope that RTE may re-broadcast some programmes Maeve took part in. One of the most recent was Gay Byrne’s The Meaning of Life’ when Maeve talked about her spirituality. I was surprised to hear her say that she lost all belief in God or an afterlife many years ago. I felt that this was somehow out of kilter with her positivity and optimism. And today as we mark her passing I am hoping she was completely wrong. I am hoping that somewhere just beyond our consciousness Maeve is listening intently to all these tributes and when they fade away as they will, she will find a heavenly office, full of shelves of books and perhaps a cat, in which to craft a new story.
May she rest in eternal peace.
Ni bheidh a leithead ann aris