Remembering ‘The Irish Times’ circle of friends

An Irishman’s Diary: Commemoration for those who died in the past year

Tikhvin Cemetery in St Petersburg is the last resting-place of some very illustrious personages from the sphere of the arts, including the composers Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov, the novelist Dostoevsky and other writers such as Lomonosov and Baratynsky, who are key figures in Russian literature but not so well-known in the West.

On a visit to Russia’s second city some years ago, I found myself staying in a hotel close to the cemetery. There were books in English on sale in the lobby but, surprisingly, no translations of Dostoevsky or other Russian writers, nor did I see any biographies or studies of Tchaikovsky or other musical notables.

I noted instead that pride of place was going to our very own Maeve Binchy, writer and Irish Times journalist. To add to the humiliation of the great ones in the nearby cemetery, a typical Russian mixture of hail, rain and sleet was pouring
down from the sky at the

I immediately phoned Maeve and gave her the news, to her great delight and amusement, that she had displaced the giants of Russian literature and music.

Not that Maeve Binchy would ever have had what people down the country call “notions” that she was Ireland’s answer to Dostoevsky, although her enormous output shows how serious she was about her writing and it is likely her name will still be remembered when many of her contemporaries are forgotten.

I was on a temporary posting for this newspaper at the time in Moscow, but I had been looking for an excuse for some time to visit St Petersburg, whose glories I had heard so much about.

That excuse came courtesy of Prince Charles who was making the first visit to the city by a member of the British royal family in exactly 100 years. The previous occasion had been the marriage of a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria to tsar Nicholas – the couple came to a violent end at the hands of the Bolsheviks after the Revolution.

Indeed, it was through her reportage on the wedding of Prince Charles' sister Anne to Capt Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey that Maeve first made her name as a journalist. The piece was carried in The Irish Times of November 15th, 1973, on a front page that was oddly devoid of photographs.

The tone was chatty and gossipy and highly entertaining: a complete break with the long journalistic tradition of po-faced coverage reserved for such occasions. When Maeve wrote that, “The bride looked as edgy as if it were the Badminton Horse Trials and she was waiting for the bell to gallop off”, it did not go down well with some readers.

Nor were they pleased to read that “There were a lot of hymns and I saw the queen singing her head off, but gloomily”; and Maeve’s conclusion that “It was a very well-produced show . . . but then the actors are getting slightly above Equity rates.”

A reader in Blackrock wrote that, "The Irish Times must truly be scraping the bottom of the bucket if it has to use this bad-mannered diatribe to sell itself." A Dún Laoghaire letter-writer said the article was "positively nauseating" and undermined "the foundations of Christian marriage".

But there were plenty of readers who enjoyed the report immensely including a man from Listowel who wrote: “When Maeve Binchy stops contributing to your paper I’ll stop buying it. May she live forever!”

Sadly, none of us lives forever and to the great sorrow of her many friends and admirers, Maeve Binchy passed away on July 30th last year. More recently on March 4th, another Irish Times legend, the highly-respected former Gaelic Games Correspondent, Paddy Downey, also went to the Great Newsroom in the Sky.

Paddy was a very cultivated individual whose interests ranged far and wide beyond the hurling and Gaelic football fixtures that he covered with such style and authority. He chose his words with the care and discrimination of a poet and if a deadline had to be stretched on occasion as he searched for the mot juste, then so be it.

There were others, perhaps less-prominent but certainly not less-valued by their colleagues and friends, who left us in the past 12 months. They will all be remembered, along with other deceased Irish Times staff and contributors, at an interdenominational commemoration service on Saturday, June 15th, at 11am in the Unitarian Church on St Stephen's Green, Dublin. Everyone is welcome, including former staff, as well as readers and especially letter-writers because we are all, in Maeve Binchy's phrase, a "circle of friends".