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2012-08 Maeve Binchy had something to say

James column for the Sligo Weekender

 
Ten years ago, when Brian Feeney first approached me to discuss writing a regular column for the Weekender Brians main concern was that I would have something to say. Somewhat insecurely, I trusted that my travels, life experiences, humour and opinions would suffice. One thing is for certain, the late great Maeve Binchy most definitely had something to say - quite a lot to say  wrapped snugly in the most eloquent flowing readable accessible comforting cosiness. I am in no way placing myself in the same category as this Grande Dame of Irish literature of course, and I feel wholly underqualified as an amateur journalist to come up with a fitting tribute to this National Treasure, but it would be wrong not to in some way salute the premature passing of this utterly lovable Irish institution. 

Nietzche said that the best author is the one who is ashamed to become a writer - Maeve in her endearingly trademark self-deprecating manner continually declared herself a teacher, which of course she was in her early years. But her undoubted brilliance as an Irish Times journalist, her 40 million sales of 16 published novels translated into 37 languages, her several movies and TV films, place her as the Mum of Irish contemporary female writers, and why when you mention youre Irish abroad people refer to Guinness, Riverdance, U2 and Maeve Binchy.
Maeve boasted of having had a loving childhood with two parents who doted on their kids, and later a thoroughly loving and trusting marriage with her beloved Gordon Snell. Yet riddled with adolescent insecurities, and crippled with arthritis in later years, Maeve never moaned, was always positive, smiling, courageous, inspiring, and big-hearted.

We can all identify with her depictions of small-town life in Ireland, that lilac bus shuttling commuters up from the west to Dublin to and from their weekly jobs, or the two girls growing up in the aftermath of World War 2 in her debut novel Light a penny candle. Such bi-lingual fictional place-names as Knockglen and Shancarrig with their kaleidoscopic casts of skilfully-crafted characters appeared remarkably real to us. These beautifully painted characters were often picked up from her observationally skilful eaves-dropping at bus-stops or in social gatherings, though she clearly had an astonishingly unique interest and insight into human nature. Yet books very much about Ireland, with Irish characters from Irish families, were bafflingly relevant to millions of readers abroad. We recognised the characters because we grew up with all of them in our towns, villages and parishes. But the word character suggests caricature, and these were not caricatures, they were real living people that leaped out from her pages. 

For centuries Ireland has been renowned for its story-telling traditions and its seanchaí. Maeve Binchy contemporised that age-old tradition and brought it into the 21st Century. Maeves larger-than-life personality constantly overflowed with mesmerising stories. Her interviews were conducted in a breathless, hurried, energized voice, and you can almost hear that quality as you digest her written word. 

Perhaps its Maeves honesty and the quasi-autobiographical nature of some of her books that makes them so accessible abroad. Maeve was the big funny girl in the classroom who amused her pals with endless funny stories. In Circle of Friends Benny (played by Minnie Driver) is similarly funny and insecure about her weight and looks, in one scene exclaiming Jesus, Mary and Joseph  I look like the prow of a ship. All-too-familiar themes of love, loss, friendship, education, Catholicism, premarital sex and abortion are dealt with by someone who knew. The obligatory oleaginous slime-ball (Seán) is a masterly screen characterisation by Alan Cumming. Forgiving Chris ODonnells third-rate Oirish accent, Circle of Friends is an irrefutably warm and fuzzy feel-good film - a sort of guilty pleasure. 

Nobody had a bad word to say about Maeve Binchy. I met her several times, and her warmth, sweetness, kindness, contentedness, vitality, fun, generosity, graciousness, and eloquence were obvious for all to see.

She spoke openly of her Road to Damascus in reverse experience in Israel when she lost her faith completely, and yet she seemed somehow more Christian than many Christians themselves - a humanist/atheist saint with an unbelievable faith in life and people.

We have lost one of Irelands finest Ambassadors of our time. It also feels like we have lost a favourite aunt, a godmother and a best friend all rolled into one. Maeve Binchy, you and your big heart will remain in our hearts and minds forever.