Maeve Binchy and her husband Gordon Snell always made a big thing of birthdays. They had a tradition of writing each other jokey verse to celebrate. Maeve, who died in July 2012, would have turned 80 today. She remains one of Ireland’s most popular writers: her novels have sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and counting. Translated into 37 languages – the most recent being Korean – her influence is so prevalent that it’s hard sometimes to think of her as no longer writing and publishing.
In 2017, her long-time agent and friend Christine Green said: “I found myself thinking that Maeve is gone but we don’t have to believe it. We have the sound of her voice, we have her writing. And that’s just wonderful.”
Green was speaking at the inaugural Echoes literary weekend in October 2017. Now in its third year, and attracting an international audience, Echoes is programmed and hosted by Dalkey Castle and Heritage Centre in collaboration with Gordon Snell.
Self-described as a “literary event with Maeve Binchy at its heart”, Echoes features the best of Irish writing and contemporary writers. Writers who have taken part include Catherine Dunne, Diarmaid Ferriter, Patricia Scanlan, Joseph O’Connor, Martina Devlin, Declan Hughes, and Frank McGuinness. It has also featured staged readings of her plays, including Shay Linehan’s adaptation of her Aches & Pains, and excerpts from her journalism.
In 2017, Echoes explored Binchy’s position as a social chronicler, and how our understanding of that position is evolving. As Gordon Snell has often said, Binchy was unafraid to tackle quite fierce topics and modern issues. The keynote speaker, Prof Margaret Kelleher, noted that a closer study of Binchy’s writing suggests that she will be regarded as “as a key witness and chronicler of Irish life in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the next”.
By telling us stories about ourselves, Binchy recorded a different kind of history. Diarmaid Ferriter commented that in Ireland we had “official archives that told us what happened, they didn’t necessarily tell us what it felt like. Maeve’s work was very powerful in communicating what it felt like.”
In 2018, the focus of Echoes was on questions of feminism and gender stereotyping in fiction, and the famous description of Binchy as “a quiet feminist”: a description she always said she loved because it was the first time she had ever been called “quiet”.
From people commuting together in Lilac Bus, or the raggle-taggle team that comes together to raise a child and show us that everyone’s life is improved when individuals, communities and governments collaborate to care for those in trouble in Minding Frankie, or in any of a myriad other settings, Binchy believed that shared experiences created and fostered communities. Her 2008 novel Heart and Soul explored her continuing fascination with travel and migration by looking at one of the new communities in Ireland through the life of a recently-arrived Polish woman, Ania.
In an interview with the Irish Times on the occasion of her winning the Irish PEN Award in 2007 she said: “There’s the sense that they are still at the window looking in at us, not yet living the life. There’s a loneliness in that I want to look at.”
This year, Echoes takes up this theme and celebrates community in contemporary writing in Ireland. Featuring an exciting and diverse line-up of writers, festival topics include our collective identity as an island nation, how real life is reflected in modern fiction, and the adventures of Irish writers abroad.
Speaking at Echoes last October, writer Frank McGuinness said, “the legacy that Maeve Binchy has bestowed on Irish writers is the knowledge that we can do anything, go anywhere and if you choose it, you can be successful as you care to be. She opened gates. She opened doors.”
Happy birthday, Maeve. And thank you.
Echoes runs from October 4th-6th. Events on Saturday, October 5th feature: Chris Binchy, Andrea Carter, Fionn Davenport, Hazel Gaynor, Carlo Gebler, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Ibrahim Halawa, Róisín Ingle, Madeleine Keane, Cathy Kelly, Mary Pat Kelly, Olivia O'Leary, Lynn Ruane, Gordon Snell, Jo Spain among others. Other events to be announced. Details and booking information on echoes.ie.