• Birth—May 28, 1940
• Where—Dalkey (outside Dublin), Ireland
• Death—July 30, 2012
• Where—Dalkey, Ireland
• Education—B.A., University College, Dublin
• Awards—see below
Maeve Binchy Snell was an Irish novelist, playwright, short story writer, columnist, and speaker. She is best known for her humorous take on small-town life in Ireland, her descriptive characters, her interest in human nature and her often clever surprise endings. Her novels, which were translated into 37 languages, sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, and her death, announced by Vincent Browne on Irish television late on 30 July 2012, was mourned as the passing of Ireland's best-loved and most recognisable writer.
Her books have outsold those of other Irish writers such as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, W. B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Edna O'Brien and Roddy Doyle. She cracked the U.S. market, featuring on the New York Times best-seller list and in Oprah's Book Club. Recognised for her "total absence of malice" and generosity to other writers, she finished ahead of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Stephen King in a 2000 poll for World Book Day.
Binchy was born in Dalkey, County Dublin (modern-day Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown), Ireland, the oldest child of four. Her siblings include one brother, William Binchy, Regius Professor of Laws at Trinity College, Dublin, and two sisters: Renie (who predeceased Binchy) and Joan Ryan. Her uncle was the historian D. A. Binchy (1899–1989). Educated at the Holy Child Convent in Killiney and University College Dublin (where she earned a bachelor's degree in history), she worked as a teacher of French, Latin, and history at various girls' schools, then a journalist at the Irish Times, and later became a writer of novels, short stories, and dramatic works.
In 1968, her mother died of cancer aged 57. After Binchy's father died in 1971, she sold the family house and moved to a bedsit in Dublin.
Her parents were Catholics and Binchy attended a convent school. However, a trip to Israel profoundly affected both her career and her faith. As she confided in a Q&A with Vulture:
In 1963, I worked in a Jewish school in Dublin, teaching French with an Irish accent to kids, primarily Lithuanians. The parents there gave me a trip to Israel as a present. I had no money, so I went and worked in a kibbutz—plucking chickens, picking oranges. My parents were very nervous; here I was going out to the Middle East by myself. I wrote to them regularly, telling them about the kibbutz. My father and mother sent my letters to a newspaper, which published them. So I thought, It’s not so hard to be a writer. Just write a letter home. After that, I started writing other travel articles.
Additionally, one Sunday, attempting to locate where the Last Supper is supposed to have occurred, she climbed a mountainside to a cavern guarded by a Brooklyn-born Israeli soldier. She wept with despair. The soldier asked, “What’ya expect, ma’am—a Renaissance table set for 13?” She replied, “Yes! That’s just what I did expect.” Binchy was no longer a Catholic.
Binchy, described as "six feet tall, rather stout, and garrulous", confided to Gay Byrne of the Late Late Show that, growing up in Dalkey, she never felt herself to be attractive; "as a plump girl I didn't start on an even footing to everyone else", she shared. After her mother's death, she expected to a lead a life of spinsterhood, or as she expressed: "I expected I would live at home, as I always did." She continued, "I felt very lonely, the others all had a love waiting for them and I didn't."
She ultimately encountered the love of her life, however; when recording a piece for Woman's Hour in London, she met children's author Gordon Snell, then a freelance producer with the BBC. Their friendship blossomed into a cross-border romance, with her in Ireland and him in London, until she eventually secured a job in London through the Irish Times. She and Snell married in 1977 and after living in London for a time, moved to Ireland. They lived together in Dalkey, not far from where she had grown up, until Binchy's death. She told the Irish Times:
[A] writer, a man I loved and he loved me and we got married and it was great and is still great. He believed I could do anything, just as my parents had believed all those years ago, and I started to write fiction and that took off fine. And he loved Ireland, and the fax was invented so we writers could live anywhere we liked, instead of living in London near publishers.
Ill health...and death
In 2002, Binchy "suffered a health crisis related to a heart condition," which inspired her to write Heart and Soul. The book about (what Binchy terms) "a heart failure clinic" in Dublin and the people involved with it, reflects many of her own experiences and observations in the hospital.
Towards the end of her life, Binchy had the following message on her official website: "My health isn't so good these days and I can't travel around to meet people the way I used to. But I'm always delighted to hear from readers, even if it takes me a while to reply."
She suffered with severe arthritis, which left her in constant pain. As a result of the arthritis she had a hip operation.
Binchy died on 30 July 2012 after a short illness. She was 72.] Gordon was by her side when she died in a Dublin hospital. Immediate media reports described Binchy as "beloved", "Ireland's most well-known novelist" and the "best-loved writer of her generation". Fellow writers mourned their loss, including Ian Rankin, Jilly Cooper, Anne Rice, and Jeffrey Archer. Politicians also paid tribute. President Michael D. Higgins stated: "Our country mourns." Taoiseach Enda Kenny said, “Today we have lost a national treasure.” Minister of State for Disability, Equality and Mental Health Kathleen Lynch, appearing as a guest on Tonight with Vincent Browne, said Binchy was, for her money, as worthy an Irish writer as James Joyce or Oscar Wilde, and praised her for selling so many more books than they managed.
In the days after her death tributes were published from such writers as John Banville, Roddy Doyle, and Colm Tóibín. Banville contrasted Binchy with Gore Vidal, who died the day after her, observing that Vidal "used to say that it was not enough for him to succeed, but others must fail. Maeve wanted everyone to be a success." Numerous tributes appeared in publications on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Guardian and CBC News.
Shortly before her death, Binchy told the Irish Times:
I don't have any regrets about any roads I didn't take. Everything went well, and I think that's been a help because I can look back, and I do get great pleasure out of looking back ... I've been very lucky and I have a happy old age with good family and friends still around.
Just before dying, she read her latest short story at the Dalkey Book Festival.
She once said she would like to die "... on my 100th birthday, piloting Gordon and myself into the side of a mountain." She was cremated that Friday in Mount Jerome. It was a simple ceremony, as she had requested.
The New York Times reports: Binchy's "writing career began by accident in the early 1960s, after she spent time on a kibbutz in Israel. Her father was so taken with her letters home that "he cut off the ‘Dear Daddy’ bits,” Ms. Binchy later recounted, and sent them to an Irish newspaper, which published them." Donal Lynch observed of her first paying journalism role: the Irish Independent "was impressed enough to commission her, paying her £16, which was then a week-and-a-half's salary for her."
In 1968, Binchy joined the staff at the Irish Times, and worked there as a writer, columnist, the first Women's Page editor then the London editor, later reporting for the paper from London before returning to Ireland.
Binchy's first published book is a compilation of her newspaper articles titled My First Book. Published in 1970, it is now out of print. As Binchy's bio posted at Read Ireland describes: "The Dublin section of the book contains insightful case histories that prefigure her novelist's interest in character. The rest of the book is mainly humorous, and particularly droll is her account of a skiing holiday, 'I Was a Winter Sport.'"
In all, Binchy published 16 novels, four short-story collections, a play and a novella. Her literary career began with two books of short stories: Central Line (1978) and Victoria Line (1980). She published her debut novel Light a Penny Candle in 1982. In 1983, it sold for the largest sum ever paid for a first novel: £52,000. The timing was fortuitous, as Binchy and her husband were two months behind with the mortgage at the time. However, the prolific Binchy—who joked that she could write as fast as she could talk—ultimately became one of Ireland's richest women.
Her first book was rejected five times. She would later describe these rejections as "a slap in the face [...] It's like if you don't go to a dance you can never be rejected but you'll never get to dance either".
Most of Binchy's stories are set in Ireland, dealing with the tensions between urban and rural life, the contrasts between England and Ireland, and the dramatic changes in Ireland between World War II and the present day. Her books were translated into 37 languages.
While some of Binchy's novels are complete stories (Circle of Friends, Light a Penny Candle), many others revolve around a cast of interrelated characters (The Copper Beech, Silver Wedding, The Lilac Bus, Evening Class, and Heart and Soul). Her later novels, Evening Class, Scarlet Feather, Quentins, and Tara Road, feature a cast of recurring characters.
Binchy announced in 2000 that she would not tour any more of her novels, but would instead be devoting her time to other activities and to her husband, Gordon Snell. Five further novels were published before her death—Quentins (2002), Nights of Rain and Stars (2004), Whitethorn Woods (2006), Heart and Soul (2008), and Minding Frankie (2010). Her final work, A Week in Winter, was published posthumously in 2012.
Binchy wrote several dramas specifically for radio and the silver screen. Additionally, several of her novels and short stories were adapted for radio, film, and television.
Awards and honours
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