Off the Shelf: Binchy will be missed

A look back at the life, times, and books of Ireland's beloved author Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy, one of Ireland’s best-loved writers, died at age 72 in late July after a short illness.

Binchy’s novels about love and romance in Ireland sold more than 40 million copies in 37 languages, and among her most popular titles were Light a Penny Candle (1982), Echoes (1985), Circle of Friends (1990), The Copper Beech (1992) and Tara Road (1998). The last of these, the story of two women who exchange homes in Ireland and the U.S. for a magical summer, was promoted by Oprah Winfrey, ensuring runaway sales.

In 1995 Circle of Friends, about childhood friends from the village of Knockglen, was made into a film starring Chris O’Donnell and Minnie Driver.

Binchy’s novels dealt with issues such as betrayal and child-parent relationships, tensions between rural and urban life, and the transformations in Irish cultural and religious life in the late 20th century, and she left sex scenes to the imagination rather than provide graphic detail. This formula made her an international bestseller and put her in the top 10 of Britain’s most popular writers.

Binchy was born in Dalkey, County Dublin, the eldest of four children. She recalled how as a child she was “fat and hopeless at games” but very happy, as her parents “thought all their geese were swans.” She went to convent school in the nearby village of Killiney, graduated from University College, Dublin, and worked for a time as a teacher, writing short stories during her holidays, before joining The Irish Times in 1968.

In 1972 she was posted to The Irish Times London office, where her account of the wedding of Princess Anne to Capt. Mark Phillips the following year was so notably lacking in the conventional reverent prose (“The bride looked as edgy as if it were the Badminton Horse Trials and she was waiting for the bell to gallop off”) that it unleashed an avalanche of letters from readers – outraged and delighted in equal numbers.

In London, 1977, Binchy married the writer and former BBC World Service broadcaster Gordon Snell, and they maintained homes in both London and Dublin before settling permanently in Ireland. She wrote that, like her parents, Gordon believed: “I could do anything, and I started to write fiction and that took off fine.”

Binchy was a wonderful humorist, often telling hilarious anecdotes, many against herself. She related, for instance, how when the U.S. first lady Barbara Bush invited her to a lunch with other writers in the White House and everyone was asked what they would like to drink, she politely requested a white wine rather than her usual gin and tonic, and then watched in dismay as the others primly ordered mineral water. A full bottle of wine was produced for the one rather mortified Irish guest.

Binchy announced her retirement some years ago, but the books kept coming. Her 17th, A Week in Winter, will be published in October.

She won several honours for her writing, among them a lifetime achievement award at the British Book Awards in 1999 and the Irish Pen/AT Cross literary award in 2007 for a lifetime of literary achievement.

Shortly before her death, she told The Irish Times: “I’ve been very lucky and I have a happy old age with good friends and family still around.” In truth, she suffered terribly in her last years from arthritis, while remaining cheerful and concerned about others.

–– Maureen Curry is the chief librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.

Vernon Morning Star