On the tenth anniversary of her death, the new RTÉ One documentary The Magic of the Ordinary is a heartwarming look at Maeve Binchy's work and an examination of her legacy, both to journalism and fiction - watch it now, via RTÉ Player.
Sarah Maria Griffin, who features in The Magic of the Ordinary, pays her own unique tribute to a truly remarkable woman who broke global records with the scale of her success.
I have a long history of being late to things. School, permanently. Work, too often. Parties, always. So it was, in many ways, no surprise to me in 2019 when I picked up Maeve Binchy's classic work Circle of Friends, that I was showing up long past midnight, bottle of wine under my arm, delighted to be at a celebration that had started long ago.
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I felt silly, in some ways, trying to explain to people that I'd just read this amazing novel that changed my life, this book that was an already beloved Irish household staple. Battered yellow copies of Circle had existed on the bookshelves of my friends’ parents, it was even on the Leaving Cert the year before I sat mine – I had seen it again and again in bookshops, charity shops, aware always of it but never drawn to it particularly. I read it on assignment for my friend Caroline O’Donoghue’s podcast, Sentimental Garbage, which studies and celebrates pop culture that has been unfairly dismissed in the past. The first season of the show looked at chick-lit, and for a live episode recorded at Body and Soul festival, Caroline and I embarked on our Binchy journey together.
In the lead up to recording, we texted furiously as we read, immediately obsessed, relentless defenders of Benny Hogan and despisers of the cad, Jack Foley and the creep, Sean Walsh. What is still so striking to me about the work is that Binchy effortlessly architects a whole universe between the country town of Knockglen and the bustle of Dublin, simply via conversations in restaurants, classrooms, coffee shops. It is a book alive with talk. The authenticity of the characters is such that Nan, Benny and Eve could be walking around Dublin at this moment, not in the 1950's of the novel. It is a masterwork, and there I was, reading it 29 years after release, feeling like the last to know.
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Listen: In the Wings - Maeve Binchy in conversation with Myles Dungan from the Rattlebag archive
I began to slowly make my way through her list. I read my mother's favourite, Evening Class, next, and was struck again by Binchy’s ability to construct an ensemble work where everyone’s life matters, where nobody is set dressing. Then onto Echoes, then more recently, Light a Penny Candle.
I often switch in and out of the physical book with Kate Binchy's narration of the audio, who’s gentle voice during the long walks of the pandemic became an enormous comfort: how Castlebay, and then the bustling home of the O’Conners became palpable locations I could escape to. How somehow I had gone my whole life so far without this, how lucky I am to have so far to go: that this reading journey may be one I spend the rest of my life on, volume by volume.
Maeve Binchy: The Magic of the Ordinary, RTÉ One, Monday 9th May at 9.35pm