Maeve Binchy - John Horgan remembers his friend and colleague - The Irish Times

3 months ago 18

The recent RTÉ television programme about Maeve Binchy, The Magic of the Ordinary, was a reminder – if reminder were needed – about the depth and breadth of that extraordinary personality. Those who worked with her on this newspaper, as I did, were uniquely privileged, and have memories that are probably as fresh now as the day they were formed.

I first met her in London, where she turned up with a friend of hers, Jilly Healy, at a political demonstration in Trafalgar Square when we were students. In those days, the holiday job in London was a rite of passage for generations of Irish students, and many of us had our political eyes opened by the range and vitality of experience, and enthusiasm for change, in the British capital of that era.

Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park was another favourite venue, where we witnessed, among others, the late Gery Lawless preaching the virtues of Irish republicanism to British passersby who were, for the most part, puzzled rather than affronted by his anti-colonialist rhetoric.

After success as a freelance writer, particularly on travel topics, for this newspaper, Maeve joined the staff. In those days women journalists were often corralled into writing about domestic matters, and she was initially entrusted with – though never confined to – managing this part of the paper. On her first day in this role, she came to seek my approval for a piece she had written, and I had to tell her that now that she was no longer a freelance contributor, it was de rigueur for her contributions to be typed, rather than handwritten. It was an obstacle which she cleared with the ease and grace that was the hallmark of all her work.

Her responsibilities encompassed, among many other matters, editing the weekly cookery column by the legendary Theodora FitzGibbon. Late one afternoon, as the page was going to press, she received an urgent request from the printers for a photograph to illustrate FitzGibbon’s recipe for a casserole of some kind. Nothing daunted, Maeve raided the photo library for something suitable. It was not until the paper was on the streets the following day that someone noticed that the illustration chosen, in a moment of blind panic, had been one of pioneering open-heart surgery being performed by the South African surgeon Dr Christian Barnard.

As her fame grew, the world of book publishing beckoned. However, some of her early efforts were not crowned with the sort of success that was later to make her a household name. On one occasion, her sister Joan noticed that the window of Hodges Figgis bookshop in Dawson Street featured a huge display of one of her early books, but at knock-down prices as part of a stock-clearing exercise. Fired by sibling loyalty, Joan went into the shop, bought every copy in the window, and loaded them into the boot of her car. As the last of these were packed in, she remarked to the sales staff helping her that she was sure they were glad to have sold so many books, only to be informed that they still had plenty of them left – in the basement.

Binchy, Mary Maher and I once shared a riotous joint-30th birthday by throwing a mammoth lunch party in the Four Courts Hotel on the quays. We paid for a bowl of Irish stew for each of our guests, at 2/6d a head, and the said guests all brought their own drink. Maeve was by them writing about travel, and the practitioners of that industry vied with each other in the quantity and quality of the beverages they contributed to the celebration. Even the then editor of The Irish Times, Douglas Gageby, put in an appearance, and was later heard to wonder aloud how his paper had ever appeared the following day.

Her well-deserved success not only as a journalist but increasingly, of course, as a novelist, never obscured her sunny personality. Indeed it only helped to facilitate her many acts of private, personal generosity towards friends and colleagues, and good causes in general. Her mastery of language and observation generated an income she once described to a friend, with her characteristic, self-deprecating humour, as being beyond the dreams of avarice.

Her husband, Gordon Snell, had – and still has – his own brand of quietly understated humour which made each of them a wonderful foil for the other. A moment of which he was particularly proud was the day when he rang Maeve from a trip he was making in Africa, just so that he could announce, as she picked up the receiver: “This is Gordon, from Khartoum!”

Read Entire Article