Maeve Binchy's heartwarming tales of love, life, and loss made her one of America's best-loved storytellers. Her novels, which sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, captured imaginations on both sides of the Atlantic in a way that most authors only dream of. Seared with a truth and honesty that leapt from the page, her stories capture the imagination and continue to win her legions of loyal fans.
In this extraordinary biography, Piers Dudgeon reveals that the inspiration for many of her stories came from Maeve's own hard-won experience growing up in Ireland. In the land of her birth and what would become the setting of her novels, Maeve suffered through a difficult adolescence and famously lost her faith before coming to terms with who she was and expressing at last the qualities that would come to define her as both a writer and a person.
Drawing on extensive research and humorous personal anecdotes, Maeve Binchy: The Biography celebrates the life of a compassionate, down-to-earth and charming woman who touched hearts around the world and left behind an incredible legacy.
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About the Author
PIERS DUDGEON is a writer, editor, and photographer. He worked for ten years as a publisher in London and then started his own company, Pilot Productions. He is the author of bestselling biographies of Catherine Cookson, Edward de Bono, the composer Sir John Tavener, and the novelists Barbara Taylor Bradford, Josephine Cox, J. M. Barrie and Daphne du Maurier.
Read an Excerpt
By Piers Dudgeon
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Piers Dudgeon
All rights reserved.
The morning of Wednesday 15 August 1956 saw the sun rise full and bright over Killiney Bay, creating a perfect backdrop to the image of a tall teenage girl hurtling down the Knocknacree Road in a blur of bicycle wheels towards the little town of Dalkey.
On a day as glorious as this the deep blue sky and sea, sun-soaked white buildings, occasional palm trees and distant shadowy aspect of the Wicklow mountains to the south beg comparison with the fabulous view over the Bay of Naples, to which the roads surrounding – Vico, Sorrento, Monte Alverno, San Elmo and Capri – seem also to bear testimony.
But you won't find a road in the whole of Italy called Knocknacree. And the town of Dalkey, inscribed more or less on three sides by the sea, is inescapably Ireland. Old Dubliners used to say of it, 'For God's sake, sure that's the end of the line; sure, it must have been the last place God made and left His tools behind Him.' Up to 1876 there was no road beyond it along the coast, and it was literally the end of the line for the Dublin tram. Stables for the old horse-drawn version were constructed here in the 1880s, before it gave way to the motorised vehicle, but that disappeared in 1949. 'It's strange,' said Patricia Hamilton, who lives there now, 'but Dalkey is still a little like a cul-de-sac. You're not going through it to anywhere.' Why would you? As Flann O'Brien described it in his novel The Dalkey Archive (1964), it's the perfect antidote to Ireland's capital city.
Dalkey is a little town maybe twelve miles south of Dublin, on the shore. It is an unlikely town, huddled, quiet, pretending to be asleep. Its streets are narrow, not quite self-evident as streets and with meetings which seem accidental. Small shops look closed but are open. Dalkey looks like an humble settlement which must, a traveller feels, be next door to some place of the first importance and distinction ...
In 1956, untroubled by traffic, this southern outpost of Ireland's capital city was not among the towns and villages of the Gaeltacht (traditional, Gaelic-speaking Ireland), but its closed-in nature fostered just as strong a sense of belonging among its people. The family values which lie at the heart of Irish tradition imbued life here: the girl on a bicycle had spent her first seventeen years surrounded by more love than anyone could hope for.
As she careered, less perilously now, down Railway Road into Castle Street in the centre of town, Findlater's, the grocery and provision merchant at No. 37, with its sacks of dried peas and porridge oats on the old wooden floor, was opening its doors. Searson's Wines & Spirits, Dartry Dye Works and Felton the Draper at No. 47 lined the way as she glided into the old Dalkey lands – the seventh-century ruins of St Begnet, the original parish church, the two medieval castles standing sentry on either side of the road, and the nineteenth-century Church of the Assumption, where she brought her bicycle to a halt.
Leaning it against the wall of the church she glanced respectfully at the figure of Our Lady in the churchyard, for it was indeed Her day, 15 August, Feast Day of the Assumption, the day reserved by Catholics to celebrate the Virgin Mary's ascension into heaven.
Making her way inside, she saw with relief that she was alone and walked silently down the nave towards the east end of the church where stood a rack of candles and a collection box covered in hard white wax.
Put a penny in the box and you could light a candle for someone ailing, or for their soul if they were dead. She and her friends generally did it to make a wish come true, and today the girl would need all the help she could get. She was expecting the results of her Certificate of Matriculation, which would decide whether she could go to university. It was a day that could change her life forever.
With the candle lit she knelt in one of the long pews in the main body of the church. The carving of the Last Supper on the face of the High Altar and the white plaster sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross on the walls above her were scenes she knew intimately, quite as well as the furniture in any of the rooms at home.
Raising her head she looked up at the three magnificent stained glass panels of the east window, framed like a triptych over the High Altar. The one in the centre commanded her attention in particular. It showed the very moment the Mother of God was taken into Heaven, her earthly life over.
She held the vision in her mind as she covered her eyes with her hands and told God exactly why it was that she was there, that she was sure He would understand that it was time now for her to leave Dalkey and put all the tortures He had seen fit to heap upon her to good use.
She had a very special relationship with God, frank and open. She regarded him as a friend, an Irish friend of course. He knew her innermost thoughts, both good and sinful. He also knew her innermost problems, or 'tortures' as she referred to them. He knew them because it was He who had given them to her, to challenge her and make a saint of her, which she fully intended to be. In later years she would be reticent about her spiritual beliefs. But now, though seventeen years of age, she was still an innocent child and was clearer, freer and more content with her inner life than she ever would be again.
Hers had been the best start any girl could want. She was born Anne Maeve Binchy, in a maternity unit at 26 Upper Pembroke Road in Dublin, on 29 May 1939, the eldest daughter of a young barrister, William Francis Binchy, and his wife, Maureen.
Her father was a studious, intellectual and gentle man. As a barrister he wasn't especially high-achieving, but he had a deep and serious interest in the law and was clearly something of a workaholic. Whether at home in his study, or sitting in the garden in the summer, or on holiday with his wife and children, William always had a bundle of solicitors' briefs with him.
Maeve's upbringing might have been a thoroughly ordinary middle-class Catholic one had it not been for her mother. Maureen Blackmore was completely different to William. She was an extrovert, with an irrepressible personality grounded in an unquenchable interest in people, whoever they might be and wherever she might find them. If she and Maeve were on the bus together Maureen would not only talk to the person next to her but to the whole bus, making her daughter more self-conscious with every passing moment. Often Maureen could be found down in the open-air market in Dublin's Moore Street, sitting in a fur coat on an upturned box, furiously smoking her Gold Flake cigarettes and engaging with the traders, famous for their banter and thick Dublin accent. What was important to Maureen was what went on between people – her world was made up not so much of things as of people, and in particular of the resonances between them.
Very much an authentic free spirit, caring, socially conscious but unaffected, a natural socialist, she brought compassion to people's lives and had an intuitive way of always saying what turned out to be right. This wasn't a learned skill nor did she have to try to find the words. They were 'just there', as Maeve put it. It seems that Maureen was something of a seer, and Maeve felt that her mother's marriage to her father was definitely touched by fate.
Maureen and William were both working in Dublin around the time that they met, William as a lawyer, Maureen as a nurse at St Vincent's, a major academic teaching hospital in Ireland's capital city. But they actually came together for the first time elsewhere, under extraordinary circumstances.
Regularly each summer Maureen booked in to a seaside resort called Ballybunion, far to the west of Ireland on the beautiful Kerry coast, for the final two weeks of July. And every year, with the same regularity, William went to the same place for the first two weeks of August. For years they missed one another by a few days or hours. Then one summer, on the last day of July, Maureen happened to miss the bus home and decided to go back to the hotel and see if she could stay on a while longer.
Bursting into reception, she explained what had happened and asked if she could keep her room. Unfortunately not, she was told, it had just that minute been taken. The receptionist had nodded towards a young man still hanging around in the foyer looking rather perplexed at any difficulty he may inadvertently have caused.
Being a gentleman, William insisted that Maureen should have the room, and then surprised himself by saying that perhaps they'd see each other at the dance that evening.
Ballybunion was a popular rendezvous for hundreds of families, singles and gangs of young people from all over Ireland and farther afield. At that time the Pavilion was the place to go dancing in the evening. Sure enough, William and Maureen did meet at the dance – a meeting of chance which they made much of with their children over the years. Perhaps it takes fate to step in for two young people so completely different to one another, to make as loving a relationship as theirs turned out to be.
William and Maureen wed on 29 March 1938, at the Catholic church of St Michael in the ancient port of Dún Laoghaire (pronounced Dunleary), a couple of miles north-west of Dalkey.
Maureen recorded no rank or profession on the marriage certificate, but Maeve was always told that she was a nurse training to be a physiotherapist at the time. She gave her address as Piltown, County Kilkenny. She had been born further west, on a rural estate called Cregg, a few miles to the north of Carrick-on-Suir on the border of Tipperary with Kilkenny. Her father, Thomas, was a farmer on the estate and her mother, Bridget, kept two servants, one a domestic, the other a farm servant. The Blackmores lived at 'House No. 14' on the estate but, according to Maeve, Thomas and Bridget died when Maureen was a child and she'd been 'brought up by step-relations', probably in nearby Piltown.
William and Maureen's first home together was at Beechgrove, a house at the south end of the Lower Glenageary Road, on the border of Dalkey and Dún Laoghaire, not far from where William had been renting a room on Summerhill Terrace.
Everyone gives the year of the birth of the couple's first-born as 1940, as Maeve herself did. But the child's birth certificate states plainly and unequivocally that she was born on 29 May 1939. Her sister Joan was born in 1942; Irene (known as Renie) followed in 1944 and her brother William in 1947.
Maureen made both Beechgrove and, later, Eastmount (the house on Knocknacree Road to which the Binchys moved in 1952) warm and happy homes. The family was a complete and significant entity in the lives of the children and they would live at home during and after university, and return to live nearby as mature adults.
'My childhood was a joy,' Maeve confirmed. She remembered no arguments between her parents during the entire course of her childhood and only one difference of opinion. It had begun as a discussion about the precise structure of a horse-drawn cart, a subject Maureen, being a farmer's daughter, might be expected to know something about, but evidently also one that a pedantic legal mind might want to examine in minuscule detail. Pretty soon voices were raised and it developed into a row, one that other families probably wouldn't even have noticed. But so harmonious was life usually in the Binchy household that to the children it seemed that their parents were one step away from divorce. Maeve remembered sitting on the stairs with her three siblings, taking her role as the eldest seriously and organising who would go to live with whom.
Religion was an integral part of life, for the Binchys were a practising Roman Catholic family and Maeve attended church from when she was a baby. On Sundays in the 1940s and 1950s the shops closed and everyone went to church. It was very much a family event, as well as a cultural and spiritual one, a freshening of the spirit of the community.
The two sacred institutions around which life turned when Maeve was a girl, family and religion, both came together at Christmas, which she always associated with the best moments in her childhood.
One year Maeve asked Santa for a doll's house, but it was too late for her father to get hold of one. William and Maureen stayed up all night trying unsuccessfully to make one, in desperation writing a note from Santa saying that it was too big for the chimney and would come the following year.
But while nothing was too much for her parents, Maeve was not spoiled materially. She said that she and her three siblings were dressed by Maureen in hand-me-downs from their cousins. Money was lavished neither on the children nor on the house, the interior of which Maeve described as 'shabby'. Eastmount was comfortable but not self-consciously so. Life was for living, not a 'permanent examination where women would be found wanting'. Maureen had a horror of pretension of any sort and this transferred to Maeve along with much else of her mother's qualities and temperament.
It was a feature of Christmas that Maureen would invite people to lunch who had no family of their own. Maeve doesn't appear to have liked this custom very much, but Maureen was not interested in any grouse from the children about wanting Christmas for them alone. Her children were her priority for the other 364 days of the year, beginning on St Stephen's Day – Boxing Day – when Maureen would take them on the bus to Leopardstown races in Foxrock, a little to the west of Dalkey. William had no interest in racing but Maureen loved it, especially meeting all the people. Maeve remembered it as marvellous.
At home there was an open-door policy for the children and Eastmount became a centre for all their friends. It was a sea of affection and laughter, a swelling tide of squealing and giggling and wriggling excitement when they were young, which surely inspired the atmosphere in Maeve's first novel, Light a Penny Candle (1982), of the O'Connors' home at 14 The Square, Kilgarret, a small town in County Wicklow, also just south of Dublin, 'where there was constant companionship and apparently half the town passing through on some errand or other'.
Light a Penny Candle, set in Ireland and England during and after the Second World War, is a tale of friendship between Aisling O'Connor (generally pronounced Ash-leen) and an English evacuee to Ireland, Elizabeth White, who arrives in Kilgarret at the start of the Second World War. Elizabeth's mother Violet knows Aisling's mother Eileen because they went to school together at a convent in England. At the beginning of the novel both girls are just ten, but their friendship continues to survive against all odds, long into the future.
There are many reasons to return to this novel, one being the affecting picture Maeve draws of life at home in the O'Connor household, a wonderful testimony to the happy and supportive childhood William and Maureen gave its author.
In the beginning the White family is the yardstick against which the O'Connors' happy family scene is measured. Elizabeth, her mother Violet and father George live a drab, grey life in suburban London. George has a dreary job in a bank and has been rejected as unsuitable for war. His rejection seems less to do with his deafness, varicose veins, flat feet and whistling chest than with his utter dullness and inadequacy. George seems to invite rejection from every quarter.
Elizabeth's mother, Violet, has been ground down by marriage to George. Her features are flat; all sparkle has disappeared. Elizabeth longs for her parents to be happy, and escapes upstairs pretending to do her homework when in fact she is sitting on her bed crying and unpicking the stitching of a favourite doll.
This is in vivid contrast to the tumbling humanity of the O'Connor family in Kilgarret – Sean O'Connor, his wife Eileen, young Sean, Maureen, ten-year-old Aisling, truculent Eamonn, consumptive Donal and baby Niamh.
The O'Connors are passionate, fun, lively creatures. On arrival, the evacuee Elizabeth is overcome by the sheer boisterousness and confusion and extravagant emotion of this, a traditional Irish family.
It is then that Aisling, with her wild red hair and intuitive ways – the person Maeve said she would most like to have been of all her fictional characters (and in many ways actually was) – takes control, initiating and encoding the friendship she will have with Elizabeth in a sign that she draws up for the door of the bedroom they will share. It reads, 'Aisling and Elizabeth. Please Knock. No Admittance.'
Excerpted from Maeve Binchy by Piers Dudgeon. Copyright © 2013 Piers Dudgeon. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Two: The Line,
Three: Her Little World,
Five: Becoming Maeve,
Six: A Week in Summer,
Seven: London Apprentice,
Nine: The Return,
Ten: A Week in Winter,
Appendix A: The Proclamation,
Appendix B: 'The Ballad of Kevin Barry',
Appendix C: Brehon Law,
List of Illustrations,