Obituary: Maeve Binchy, writer and journalist
Born: 28 May, 1940, in Dalkey, Co Dublin. Died: 30 July, 2012, in Dublin, aged 72.
Maeve Binchy was recognised as Ireland’s most popular and best-selling author, selling more than 40 million books worldwide. In them she captured the small town life of rural Ireland with a passionate yet kindly understanding. Two, The Lilac Bus and Echoes, were made into TV films while Circle of Friends, Tara Road and How About You were made into feature films. She wrote four collections of short stories, a play, Deeply Regretted By, and the novella, Star Sullivan.
Her books captured the very essence of Irish life, always self-deprecating but charming and witty. There was a natural flow to her writing and her story- telling that was at once all- embracing and joyous.
Maeve Binchy attended the Holy Child Convent in Killiney, then United College, Dublin and worked for a time as a teacher in Dublin before branching out as a journalist for the Irish Times. But she also spent time leading a gloriously erratic life – what she called “on the decks of cheap boats, or working in kibbutzim in Israel or minding children as camp counsellors in the United States”.
Her letters home were colourful, enthusiastic and full of energy. Her parents decided to send them to some Dublin editors. “That,” Binchy stated modestly, “was how I became a writer.”
Her facility with words and her ability to write involving columns brought her a considerable following in Ireland and in 1968 she was appointed the women’s editor of the Irish Times and a few years later its London editor.
It was while she was in London that she met her future husband, Gordon Snell, who then worked for the World Service of the BBC, and published her first novel, Light and Penny Candle, which became a best-seller. It was originally rejected by five publishers, something that she admitted years later was “a slap in the face”.
Her two most popular novels were adapted into films. Circle of Friends was in 1995, starring Chris O’Donnell and Minnie Driver, while Tara Road had Andie McDowell and Olivia Williams in the leads.
The character Driver played in Circle of Friends was a typical Binchy heroine – spiky, confident, able to take control of her life and happy with that control. Binchy wrote as she spoke – full of Irish pizzazz and zeal.
Binchy remained a modest and delightfully down to earth woman. She and her husband returned to live in the area of Dublin where she had been brought up and worked together at their computers. In 2000 Binchy was ranked third in the World Book Day poll of favourite authors – ahead of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
But such success did not change her. With a refreshing candour she said recently: “I was very pleased, obviously, to have outsold great writers. But I’m not insane – I do realise that I am a popular writer who people buy to take on vacation.”
Her plots were carefully constructed and their strong female characters reflected the introvert attitudes prevalent in remote Irish villages in the early 1960s. She spun stories about the individuals with a beguiling zest and painted her ordinary characters as anything but ordinary.
Binchy was a bright and exuberant character on talk shows in Ireland and during her time in London was a regular reviewer on such programmers as Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope. Her generous nature did not stop her being an incisive critic but her remarks were helpful and encouraging. “And always delivered with a broad and beaming smile,” one BBC producer recalled.
Nothing typified Binchy’s passion for life more than her love of Irish pipe music and jazz (particularly Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald).
She and her husband would write most mornings (he was a children’s author) and then play chess in the afternoon. “We are still hopeless at it, but loved chess to bits,” she joked. Another of her pleasures was playing what she called “very bad over-talkative bridge”.
Binchy was also widely read and admired by other leading contemporary writers. Ian Rankin wrote yesterday: “Maeve was a gregarious, larger than life, ebullient recorder of human foibles and wonderment.”
Jilly Cooper commented: “Maeve was warm, kind and so funny. She was such a good writer.”
While Binchy announced her retirement in 2000, she continued writing. Her last novel, Minding Frankie, was published in 2010.
The respect and admiration with which Binchy was held by her readers was widespread and genuine. She articulated a style of Irish life which preserved the traditional with a wry sideways glance at the contemporary.
She completely understood people and her subjects and wrote about them in a relaxed and alluring manner.
Maeve Binchy is survived by her husband.
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