Maeve Binchy’s novels have been part of the fabric of life for Shirley Benton-Bailey. Here she remembers the ground-breaking novelist.
It was a rite of passage for Irish female teenagers in the late 80s and early 90s – and possibly some male ones too – to sneak their mothers’ Maeve Binchy books off bedside lockers and spirit them away to be read late into the night. At that time, Maeve’s books were as much of a part of the fabric of Irish life as bread and milk were. When I read her first book, Light a Penny Candle, I didn’t know then that it had been sold for £52,000 in 1982 – the largest sum ever paid for a first novel – but it didn’t matter. I just wanted to read the book that had always seemed to be lying around every house I visited – my friend’s mother’s kitchen, my aunt’s hall table, the bookshelf of a nun I once did an errand for. And read it I did – far, far into the night. I missed the bus into school the following morning, had to thumb a lift into town and ended up falling asleep in the school toilets at lunchtime. But it was worth it, and I proceeded to devour Echoes, Firefly Summer, and Circle of Friends amongst other of her works.
When I started college, Maeve’s books accompanied me along the path of my new life. I can remember putting Chaucer, Ibsen and Flaubert aside, exams or no exams, to focus on the novels she released at that time – The Glass Lake, Evening Class and Tara Road, occasionally dipping into her short story collections too. You see, not reading a new Maeve Binchy book was unthinkable. I was studying English and French literature at college, but to my mind, Maeve was the author I should have been studying. Her characterisation, her depiction of
relationships, her wry observations were second to none. And I wasn’t alone in enjoying her work. Her novels have sold more than 40 million copies in 37 languages.
It is impossible to wonder how many Irish novels may not have been produced if it hadn?t been for Maeve Binchy’s groundbreaking success story. Did she subliminally give Irish writers the confidence to write about contemporary Ireland? Who knows how many people were encouraged to take the first step after being inspired by the calibre of her writing? Of course, anyone who’s been there will know what Nathaniel Hawthorne knew – that easy reading is damn hard writing – but perhaps she made people wonder if they too could write a novel. One thing that is for sure is that she was unreservedly supportive of fellow writers. Upon her passing, Ireland’s president Michael D. Higgins said: “She was a great storyteller and we enjoyed her capacity to engage, entertain and surprise us. For others, particularly young and aspiring writers, she was not only a source of great encouragement; but also to so many, of practical assistance.”
His words were backed up by Patricia Scanlan, who said Maeve was extremely generous to hopeful writers and would give them great advice. Cathy Kelly and Sheila O’Flanagan have also spoken of the role Maeve played in encouraging their writing, recounting how she hosted a party for other Irish female writers to cultivate an inclusive spirit among the women who followed her example. Almost everyone who has spoken about her since her passing – from people on television to people I overheard talking about her in the supermarket – referred to her simply as Maeve. No further qualification was needed, but that wasn’t the sole reason people used her first name only when speaking about her. It was because to most Irish people, she felt like a friend. Even if you didn’t know her, you felt like you did. That was the kind of writer she was – the kind of person she was.
She, and her work, will be sadly missed both by those who knew her and those who felt they did.
RIP Maeve Binchy 1940-2012