The last chapter

Author Maeve Binchy will be remembered for her humanity and great sense of humour, says Declan Burke

WITH the death of Maeve Binchy at the age of 72, Ireland has lost one of its leading literary lights.

“I don’t think that Maeve was ever accorded the same kind of respect that some of the novelists who are considered more literary received,” says her colleague, Sheila O’Flanagan, “but I think her storytelling, certainly, set a benchmark for commercial fiction that is very high and rarely surpassed.”

Born in 1940 in Dalkey, County Dublin, and educated at UCD, Binchy became a teacher and a journalist. She moved to London and married children’s author Gordon Snell, before publishing her first novel, Light a Penny Candle, in 1982. Binchy had published three collections of short stories by then, but her fifth collection, The Lilac Bus (1984), was a bestseller. She is best known for the novels Circle of Friends (1990), Tara Road (1998) and Nights of Rain and Stars (2004).

Five of her books were adapted into films, and Binchy’s prizes include the British Book Award for Lifetime Achievement (1999), the WH Smith Book Award (2001), the PEN/AT Cross Award (2007), and the Irish Book Award’s Lifetime Achievement (2010).

Her place in the pantheon of great Irish writers has long been secured, but Binchy was another kind of leading light, a literary pathfinder who guided and inspired a younger generation.

“It was simply the fact that she made it okay to write about Ireland,” says Marian Keyes. “I remember reading The Lilac Bus., I suppose I was about 17, and that was back in the days when nothing Irish was any good.

“All our things were just crap versions of US or UK TV shows or bands or books, or whatever. And, suddenly, somebody was writing about the Ireland we all knew. So that gave me confidence when I came to write, to think, ‘I don’t have to pretend to be English or American’.”

Nor was it necessary to want to emulate James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, et al.

“That was it, as well,” Ms Keyes says. “The way she wrote was so conversational, and it was so true to how people talked, how Irish people are.”

Ms O’Flanagan says: “I think the biggest influence Maeve had on me — and probably many other Irish women writers — was in making us believe that it was possible, and acceptable, to write about Ireland and women in Ireland in a contemporary way.

“Her success certainly made me feel that I had a faint chance of one day being published — if only I could write the book in the first place.”

As well as being inspirational and ground-breaking, Binchy’s legendary sense of humour endeared her to the younger generation.

“She was really, really funny,” says Ms Keyes. “I mean, I know she was funny in her books, but in real life she could be — and I hope this is okay to say — quite ribald. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, she was just extremely funny.”

That offbeat sense of humour can be glimpsed in a questionnaire she completed for the Guardian newspaper in 1995. Asked how she would like to die, Binchy replied, “On my 100th birthday, piloting Gordon and myself into the side of a mountain.”

In the same questionnaire, she said she would like to be remembered, “As a storyteller and a good friend.”

“I admired her humanity and storytelling skill,” says Ruth Dudley Edwards. “I think she changed the Irish literary landscape by popularising decency, focusing on ordinary people, and having no traditional Irish literary love of smart-arsery. Mind you, her sense of humour was ubiquitous.”

In the latter stages of her life, unable to tour as before, due to arthritis, she was uncomplaining.

“I had a letter only a few weeks ago, and she was so nice,” says Ms Keyes.

“She admitted in the letter that she was in an awful lot of pain, but then she ended by saying, ‘Well, sure, aren’t we so lucky we can have a job that we can do in our pyjamas.’ But she was always upbeat, such a glass-half-full person.”

Binchy’s personal touch was legendary. In a World Book Day poll conducted in 2000, she finished ahead of Charles Dickens, Stephen King and Jane Austen, among many others, and was recognised for her “total absence of malice”.

She was also a dispenser of practical advice.

“I read a piece of advice from her, which was that if you wrote a page a day, you’d have a book written in a year,” says Ms O’Flanagan, “and it was so practical and down-to-earth that the idea suddenly became less daunting.

“Of course, I never did write a page a day, but whenever I get overwhelmed by the task ahead, I remember that advice.”

“She did persuade me to be less apologetic about speaking well of my own books,” says Ms Dudley Edwards. “I was having lunch with her at the Merriman summer school when the waitress said, ‘Oh, Miss Binchy, I love your books.’ Maeve asked her which was her favourite and discussed it with her. Afterwards, I said, ‘Maeve, I would have been frozen with embarrassment and just said the literary equivalent of ‘Oh, that old thing.’ ‘If you don’t like your own books,’ she said, ‘why should anyone else’?”

In the long-term, Binchy’s reputation will rest on her ability to tell timeless, universal stories. For the moment, however, it’s the personal touches people are remembering, the wicked sense of humour, the selflessness on behalf of others.

“I know she always laughed when people said she was a national treasure, but she really was,” says Ms O’Flanagan.

“Not just because of the brilliance of her books, but because of her generous spirit and personality.”

“There was this one time,” says Ms Keyes, “when Maeve was going through Heathrow, she was changing planes and had some time to spare. So she went into a bookshop and entirely rearranged their stock, so that there was a whole wall of Irish writers facing out, like Cathy Kelly, Patricia Scanlan, Sheila O’Flanagan, Edna O’Brien, me.”

“She was just this woman bumbling around and no one really noticed what she was at,” Ms Keyes says, delighted at the memory, “but there she was, quietly doing this really subversive thing.”


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