Skirting the Issue - Mourning the loss of Maeve Binchy

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There’s a line in the film version of ‘Circle of Friends’ when Minnie Driver as Benny says “You mustn’t mess me about. I know I may look like a rhinoceros, but I’ve got quite a thin skin really.”

Benny Hogan is one of my favourite ever Maeve Binchy characters - a relatively innocent and naive young woman who fights against the odds to make her way in an Ireland which had not yet caught up with the modern world.

‘Circle of Friends’ was not the first Maeve Binchy book I read - but Benny was a character I wanted to to make my friend. I knew how she felt - as a cumbersome teenager wanting to fit in - and when I read the book at the age of 16 or 17 I felt as if someone had put in words how I was feeling as I tried to find my own way in the world.

That was the thing with Maeve Binchy books - they weren’t just stories. They were friends. Benny Hogan’s world may have been 1950s Ireland but her feelings mirrored my own. I knew how she felt - I cried for her as I read her story and I lost myself in her world.

That was where Maeve Binchy’s talents lay - in creating worlds we could relate to. In telling stories with warmth, humour and compassion. In weaving intricate layers of her characters’ lives together. In making you feel as if you were sat round a fire, blanket on your knees, eyes closed against the battering of the rain against the window listening to her telling you a story that warmed you from the inside out.

She was one of the great entertainers of my teenage years. I lost many an afternoon or evening to one of her books - and created many a world in my mind from her vivid descriptions.

There were so many rainy Saturday afternoons spent curled up on my bed reading one of her battered paperbacks - passed from my granny to my mother and from my mother to me.

‘Light a Penny Candle’ was, I think, the first proper grown up book I read - and while much of the content went over my head - it was the book which got me hooked on one of Ireland’s great storytellers.

And outside of that talent of telling just great great stories, Maeve Binchy meant so much more to so many of us. It’s fair to say she gave female authors in Ireland a voice. She broke down many doors for so many of us who were to follow in her footsteps. She allowed us to write contemporary tales - real tales that dealt with real issues but which told in ways which made them hugely accessible.

She battered down the doors of literary snobbery in Ireland - but never let it be said her books were without their worth, Her books were easy to read - but they could never be accused of being light reads. In her tomes she covered issues from rape to abortion, domestic violence to bereavement in a way that brought you right to the core of human emotion but which allowed you room to breathe and to digest all that you were reading.

They provided a social commentary on a Ireland not that long gone. They have educated generations of women on how life was in the 50s and 60s.

Her later books, while arguably softer in tone, entertained and delighted - weaving delicious tales of modern Dublin - of friendship, loss and longing and gorgeous houses in Tara Road. (I still long for a kitchen just like the one in Tara Road - the hub of the house, filled with copper pans and cooking smells and a soft chair to sit in).The writing community speak highly of Maeve. I’ll admit I never got the chance to meet her - which was probably a good thing as no doubt I would have been awestruck and made an eejit of myself. But I think it is probably unusual for someone to be so universally liked and admired within their chosen field.

She had a reputation for being a salt of the earth sort - someone who supported and encouraged younger authors and who never felt she had to compete with anyone. Her tenacity and dignity over her 30 year writing career was only to be admired. I get the impression she never fretted over her sales figures - and simply - as we all should - enjoyed the process of writing for what it was.

She was rewarded of course with a legion of loyal fans - fans who would gobble up whatever she wrote for us - who considered her a friend without having met her or who looked on her as a kindly auntie figure with a brilliant talent for telling stories.

Seeing her interviewed she was always so full of life - and filled with joy, even in her later years when it was clear her health was suffering. She retained the same love for the written word - and retained that same grounding reality. Her characters worked and her stories worked because they were real.

In her own words: “I believe very, very strongly that everybody is the hero/heroine of his/her own life. I try to make my characters kind of ordinary, somebody that anybody could be.”

There is no doubt that Maeve was the heroine of her own life - and by the same token was the hero in mine and and many others.

The world of writing is duller without her and those who follow owe her a great debt of gratitude. May you sleep well Maeve. Rest in peace.