Celebrating International Women's Day 201908 March 2019
To mark International Women's Day we publish below one of our most recent entries by a woman, about a woman. Read about the fascinating life of one of Ireland's foremost writers Maeve Binchy (1939–2012), novelist and journalist, by Professor Margaret Kelleher, below.
Maeve Binchy (1939–2012), novelist and journalist, was born Ann Maeve Binchy on 28 May 1939 in Glenageary, Co. Dublin, the daughter of Maureen Binchy (née Blackmore) of Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, a nurse, and William Francis Binchy of Charleville, Co. Cork, a barrister. Her father's brother was Daniel Anthony Binchy (qv), legal scholar, historian and diplomat. Her parents married in March 1937 and their first family home was Beechgrove, Glenageary, Co. Dublin; in 1951 they moved to Eastmount, Knocknacree Road, Dalkey. Maeve was the eldest of four children: Joan (b. 1942), later a history teacher; Irene (Renie) (1944–2008), a psychiatrist and counsellor; William F. T. (b. 1947), professor of law at TCD.
Early life and education In an account of her childhood for John Quinn's collection A portrait of the artist as a young girl, Maeve observed: 'I know there is always a danger that you look back too sympathetically – rose-coloured spectacles and all that – but my childhood was a great joy' (Quinn, 5). In other recollections, she wrote: 'I had a mother and a father at home who thought I was wonderful. They thought all their geese were swans. It was a gift greater than beauty or riches, the feeling that you were as fine as anyone else' (maevebinchy.com).
At the age of five, Maeve went to St Anne's Private School nursery, Clarinda Park, Dún Laoghaire and, from 1950, attended the newly-opened Holy Child Convent at Killiney (founded in 1947). Growing up in a house full of books, she read voraciously, moving from Enid Blyton at an early age to Peter Cheyney, Agatha Christie and Graham Greene. Radio was also a significant early influence, including Saturday night theatre on BBC Radio 4; as she later commented, 'I agree with the boy who said that he preferred radio to television because the pictures were better' (Quinn, 9).
Following her Leaving Certificate examinations in 1956, Binchy went to UCD to study law but quickly changed course to read English, French, Latin and history in first arts. She studied French and history at honours level and received her degree in 1959. 'UCD was like a big light turning on in my life', she recalled. 'I joined everything that would have me. The Dramatic Society where I once played Hecuba in “Tiger at the gates”, the Musical Society, the History Society, the L&H [Literary and Historical Society]. I had appointments to discuss the world all over Dublin from the DBC [a Merrion Row café] to the Singing Kettle, from Bewley's to Roberts' (Binchy, Farewell, 44). Recollections of her college days would shape later novels, in particular Circle of friends (1990) which tells the story of four young students entering UCD in the mid 1950s.
Teaching and travel In the summer of 1959 Binchy held a summer teaching position at St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, England. She returned to Dublin to complete a higher diploma in education at UCD in 1960 and worked as a teacher for the following eight years. Her first teaching post was in Cork; in 1961 she took up a post as teacher of Latin and history at Pembroke School (known as 'Miss Meredith's'), a lay catholic girls' school on Pembroke Road, Dublin. One of her students Caroline Walsh, later literary editor of the Irish Times, recollected her power as a teacher: 'So animatedly did Maeve teach Cicero that emerging through the school gates it was a shock to discover that it was only Dubliners strolling through Baggotonia outside and not the murderous Visigoths' (Walsh, 11). Once when asked 'as a teacher, what was the most important thing you wanted to give the children', Binchy replied: 'I was very anxious to give the girls I taught confidence, to tell them that they were responsible for their own lives. It didn't matter about being married, or rich or good looking or thin, inner happiness is what we create for ourselves. Of course I am sure they didn't believe me – who believes a school teacher – but if there was a way of telling them that I would be happy. I try to do it in my books now. Women don't need to be rescued, they rescue themselves' (maevebinchy.com).
In addition to her teaching work at Miss Meredith's, she also taught French conversation to children in the Zion school in Rathgar and in 1963 the parents of her students gave her a trip to Israel as a gift. That summer she worked at the Zikim kibbutz in the Northern Negev desert and returned to Israel for the following two summers. While there she wrote long letters home; her parents, impressed by their vivacious detail, sent them to the Irish Independent, which agreed to publish them. Binchy received the sum of £16, then more than a week's salary. During other summer holidays, Binchy travelled widely, using the ABC shipping guide to plan ambitious trips outside of regular passenger routes to Tunisia, Singapore, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, Russia, Tangier, Hong Kong, Palestine and other destinations.
Journalistic success and London posting In 1964 she began freelance work as a journalist and published regular travel articles in the Irish Times as well as reports from her life as a teacher. In December 1967 Maureen Binchy died after a short illness, and Maeve continued to live with her father in the family home. Restless to do something new, she gave up teaching and became in her own words 'an unemployed freelance writer'. The Irish Times hired her as women's editor in 1968 and her work there quickly proved influential in its ability to balance light-hearted content with more serious and provocative material. Over the following year, Binchy also broadcast for RTÉ radio and for BBC's Woman's hour. According to journalist Conor O'Clery, her 'highly descriptive take on Irish life transformed the nature of colour writing in newspapers' (Guardian, 31 July 2012). Columns such as her 16 June 1970 piece featuring a list of 'the world's greatest lies about women', or 'Baby blue' (24 December 1971) about her first 'formal parties' as a teen, became especially popular for 'puncturing pomposity', in the words of her long-time colleague and friend Mary Maher (Guardian, 31 July 2012). In 1970 her first non-fiction work, My first book, was published, featuring a collection of her Irish Times articles.
In 1971 her father William Binchy died and she left their house in Dalkey for a flat in Dublin city centre. That same year, in the course of her work for Woman's hour, she met BBC broadcaster Gordon Snell in London. Wanting a career change, Binchy responded to a 'man in London wanted' advertisement at the Irish Times and moved there as its London features editor in 1972. An early article, 'Pageantry and splendour at Westminster for the royal wedding' (15 November 1973), on the subject of the wedding of Princess Anne to Captain Mark Phillips, generated considerable attention and some controversy for its piercing account of 'a superbly organised show'.
Her skill in news journalism was demonstrated by her daily reports of the war in Cyprus (July 1974) and other articles such as her 1987 account of the human grief ensuing from the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster. In 1975 she began her 'Inside London' column where her talent for capturing conversations and encounters became especially evident in articles that were embryonic short stories. On 29 January 1977 she married Gordon Snell at Hammersmith Registry Office and the couple honeymooned in Australia.
Burgeoning playwright and author In the late 1970s she undertook a number of drama projects: her play 'End of term' was produced at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin on 9 December 1976, directed by Pat Laffan and featuring Geraldine Plunkett, Máire Hastings and Máire Ní Ghráinne. Her screenplay, 'Deeply regretted by', drawn from her Irish Times article 'Death in Kilburn' (which told of the discovery on a man's death in Kilburn that he had a family in Ireland as well as in England) was broadcast on RTÉ television on 28 December 1978. Produced by Louis Lentin, it won two Jacobs Awards (one for Binchy's script and one for Donal Farmer's performance) and won best script award at the Prague Television Festival. Her third play 'The half promised land', a drama centring on two schoolteachers working on a kibbutz in Israel, opened on 11 October 1979 also at the Peacock Theatre, starring Máire Hastings, Bernadette McKenna and Barry McGovern and directed by Pat Laffan. Another television play, 'Ireland of the welcomes', was broadcast on RTÉ on 9 October 1980, starring Joe Lynch (qv) and Angela Vale.
In 1978 Binchy published Central line, her first collection of short stories, and the collections Victoria line (1980) and Dublin 4 (1981) followed soon after. For over a year she worked at weekends on the manuscript of a novel 'written in short pieces' and whose plot reflected a conscious decision to put women to the fore as the 'real heroes'. The completed novel was entitled Light a penny candle and was offered unsuccessfully to four publishers; the fifth, Century Publishing, was a new publishing house and offered a hardcover advance of £5,000. The paperback rights to the novel were sold by auction and reached £52,000, then the highest-ever sum paid by a British publisher for a first novel. Published in 1982, the novel remained in the UK top ten for fifty-three weeks.
The papers of Maeve Binchy held in UCD's Special Collections document the excitement among Binchy's first readers, and her publishers, when the popularity of Light a penny candle became clear. One of its first reviewers was Molly Keane (qv), writing in the Irish Press in October 1982. Keane began by acknowledging that she had first thought 'as I began the book: not for me'; she then went on to declare it a 'remarkable novel', 'deeply interesting and vastly entertaining'. Keane's review also identified what would prove to be enduring features of Binchy's style: her strength in dialogue and her ability to create and manage a proliferation of distinct characters. As Keane noted, 'It is personalities, from childhood to maturity, far more than events and circumstances, that spell out the fortunes of her characters. For better or for worse they draw to themselves and on themselves love, fun, money, sickness, madness, happiness and disaster. There is none of the mist that does be on the bogs, Begorragh-Irish in this book.' (Maeve Binchy Papers, UCD Library Special Collections).
Prolific novelist In 1980 Maeve and Gordon purchased a home, Pollyvilla, in Dalkey and moved there permanently some years later. Over three decades (1982–2012), Binchy published sixteen novels: Light a penny candle (1982), Echoes (1985), Firefly summer (1987), Silver wedding (1988), Circle of friends (1990), The copper beech (1992), The glass lake (1994), Evening class (1996), Tara Road (1998), Scarlet feather (2000), Quentins(2002), Nights of rain and stars (2004), Whitethorn woods (2006), Heart and soul (2008), and Minding Frankie(2010); her last novel, A week in winter, was published posthumously in 2012. Her short story collections include The lilac bus (1984), This year it will be different (1996) and The return journey (1998); Chestnut Street (2014), a book of linked short stories, and A few of the girls (2015), selected short stories, appeared after her death. Non-fiction collections include Aches and pains (1999), The Maeve Binchy writers' club (2008) and Maeve's Times(2013), a collection of her Irish Times journalism edited by Róisín Ingle with an introduction by Gordon Snell.
The enduring appeal of Maeve Binchy's fiction and the deep affection in which she is held are unquestionable. In the years since her death, what has also become more apparent is the significance of her writings as a social chronicle of the second half of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first. From her early stories named after London tube stations to her later collection The lilac bus, Binchy keenly observes the crucial importance of mobility and movement, of travel and migration, in women's lives. The scarcity of educational opportunities for the less privileged is a central theme of her 1985 novel Echoes, set between 1950 and the early 1960s, and Tara Road (1998) is an early exposé of the excesses of the 'Celtic Tiger' economy and of a growing obsession with material goods and property gains. In her later works, recurring themes include marital tensions and infidelities; economic problems (not unrelated to marital conflict); the difficulties of ageing and society's attitudes to the old; addiction and mental illness; tensions between generations caused by different opportunities and by differing expectations.
The view of the world from Maeve Binchy's fiction includes a belief in human goodness and an unflinching look at what is less than good. Along with disappointment and disillusionment, rage or pain, her writings illustrate a reassuring belief in human resilience and recovery. Minding Frankie (2010), later adapted by Shay Linehan for theatre, is a moving portrayal of the new forms of support that emerge for a bereaved child when traditional family structures collapse; a noticeable feature of Binchy's work is her interest in alternative forms of kinship outside of conventional norms. In Heart and soul (2008) Binchy's continuing interest in travel and migration comes full circle with the compelling character of Ania, a Polish woman newly arrived in Ireland. An interview with Binchy on the occasion on her winning the PEN award noted that 'At the moment she is interested in writing about the Filipinos and eastern Europeans who've come to live in Ireland in recent years. “There's the sense that they are still at the window looking in at us, not yet living the life. There's a loneliness in that I want to look at,” she says' (Ir. Times, 20 January 2007).
A number of Binchy's works have been adapted for film or television, including the films Circle of friends (dir. Pat O'Connor, 1995), starring Minnie Driver and Chris O'Donnell, and filmed in Inistioge and Dublin; Tara Road (dir. Gillies MacKinnon, 2005), starring Andie MacDowell and Olivia Williams; and How about you? (dir. Anthony Byrne, 2007), starring Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Fricker and Imelda Staunton. Television adaptations include the four-part Channel 4 miniseries Echoes (1988) and film-for-television The lilac bus (dir. Giles Foster, 1990). Theatrical versions of her work range from 'Troubled hearts' (1995) and 'Wired to the moon' (2001) by director and playwright Jim Culleton, 'Aches and pains' (2016) adapted by Shay Linehan, and 'Minding Frankie' (2017) adapted by Shay Linehan and directed by Peter Sheridan. She continued to be a regular contributor to the Irish Times and to RTÉ radio drama, and her 2004 Rattlebag interview with Myles Dungan, recorded at the National Concert Hall Dublin (during which she recounts the memorable tale of choosing a picture of Christian Bernard's second heart transplant to illustrate a veal casserole recipe) is a radio classic.
National and international esteem In 1993 a portrait of Maeve Binchy by Richard Whitehead was added to the National Portrait Gallery collection in London, and in 2005 the commissioned portrait by Maeve McCarthy was first exhibited at the National Gallery of Ireland. In 1999, following the selection of Tara Road for the Oprah Book Club, she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. That same year she received the British Book Award for lifetime achievement and a year later, in 2000, a People of the Year award. In 2000 she also announced her retirement but, despite a health crisis in 2002, she returned to public view and acclaim that year with her novel Quentins and the books that followed. In 2007 Binchy received the Irish PEN/AT Cross award for a lifetime of literary achievement and the UCD Foundation Medal, and in 2010 her lifetime achievement was acknowledged by the Irish Book Awards.
Younger Irish readers have first encountered her work as an optional comparative text on the Leaving Certificate English course, completing her journey from English teacher to literary subject. Famous television fans include Ken Barlow's mother-in-law Blanche Hunt from ITV's Coronation Street. The huge international reach of her writing can be seen in the translation of her work into more than forty languages ranging from French and Italian to Russian and Chinese and Korean.
On Christmas Day 2010 Maeve Binchy: At home in the world, a documentary telling Maeve Binchy's life story (dir. Sinéad O'Brien) screened on RTÉ television. In it she spoke of her health difficulties linked to heart and breathing problems and of her determination 'to live every day for itself as if it might be the last'. On 30 July 2012 she died from a heart attack at Blackrock Clinic, Co. Dublin, with her husband Gordon Snell by her side.
In October 2013 TG4 screened the documentary Maeve Binchy in its Cloch le carn series directed by Seán Ó Méalóid. Her life and work continue to be celebrated by the annual UCD Maeve Binchy Travel Award, the Maeve Binchy garden at Dalkey Library, and the annual Echoes literary festival organised by Dalkey Castle and Heritage Centre.
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