Archived Story

I remember Irish novelist Maeve Binchy

Published 1:05am Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I always meant to write a column about Maeve Binchy. I’ve read and loved her novels. There was a time that I thought of Maeve as my discovery; I soon learned the rest of the world had discovered her as well.

And then last July, at the age of 72, Maeve died. I was distressed and saddened. I never met the woman nor heard her speak; yet she was dear to me. Her death came just a few days after she completed her last novel, “A Week in Winter,” to be published here in the United States right about now. It is said to be “classic Binchy.”

Let me tell you a bit about Ms. Binchy, one of Ireland’s most-prolific, most-read, most-admired and most-honored authors. Her 16 novels are praised for their strong characterizations and moving stories which often include village life in all its social strata. To learn more, Google your computer for details from Wikipedia.

Born in May 1940, in the village of Dalkey, County Dublin, she was the eldest of four children. She said she had a happy childhood, but never considered herself attractive. By her teens she was six feet tall and described as “rather stout and garrulous.” She expected to be a spinster, living in the family home as she always had. Maeve confided, “I felt lonely, the others all had a love waiting for them, and I didn’t.”

Of the pictures I’ve seen of Maeve, you would not suspect this. There is nary a shot of her minus that impish, Irish grin that enwreathes her face — a smile that drew people to her. I’m suspicious that one of her forebears was a mischievous leprechaun.

With a degree in history, she taught French in a Jewish school. Maeve must have been one heck of a teacher, for her students’ parents gave her a trip to Israel — to me, a most generous and rather unexpected gift. She lived a simple life in a kibbutz, plucking chickens, picking oranges and observing her peers and their lifestyle. To assure her worried parents she was in a safe environment, Maeve often wrote home vividly documenting her life in Israel.

Maeve’s father found her writing exceptional and took her letters to the local newspaper where they were pleased to print them. Unbeknownst to Maeve, her literary career was under way.

Home again in 1968, she was hired as a writer, editor and columnist by The Irish Times. And the day came that she decided it couldn’t be that difficult to write a novel. Her first effort was “To Light Penny Candle,” published in 1982. It enjoyed great success and is considered her most beloved work.

But prior to this, Maeve’s personal life caught fire. She went to London to do a recording and while there met children’s author Gordon Snell. They fell in love and were married in 1977. It was a joyous, enduring marriage. Maeve and Gordon lived in London and then moved to Ireland, near where Maeve was born. Maeve said her husband assured her she could be a successful novelist; that she could do anything she set her mind to. He was right.

In her writing, Maeve’s heroines are the ones less inclined to win the dashing heroes, but learn to live, quite capably, without them. She often wrote of women’s friendships and what she penned was uplifting but not Pollyannaish. Her books focus on relationships from carefree childhood to tumultuous adulthood.

In later life, Maeve suffered from painful arthritis, yet she’d smile that impish grin when she deplored not being able to travel to meet people and was delighted to hear from her readers.

It was Maeve’s own heart condition that led her to write “Heart and Soul.” She died in a Dublin hospital with dearest Gordon at her side.

In remembering the intrepid, beloved author, Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny said, “Across Ireland and the world people are mourning and celebrating Maeve Binchy.” He added, “She is a huge loss wherever stories of love, hope, generosity and possibility are read and cherished.”

The prime minister got that right. Maeve Binchy left us too soon.

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