Beyond the relaxed image she was utterly professional


Maeve worked harder than virtually anyone else I knew in the ‘Irish Times’ newsroom

THE FIRST thing you noticed about Maeve’s desk was the flowers. The old Irish Times newsroom overlooking Fleet Street was not a beautiful place. It had little natural light. Smooth surfaces had a permanent patina of ink molecules, nicotine and city dust. Desks were littered with battered dictionaries, newspaper clippings and unwashed coffee cups.

But Maeve’s desk in the one sunlit corner of the room was an enclave of order and colour. She was tourism correspondent then. The flowers often came from friends or contacts. Sometimes she brought them herself.

Her travel brochures, reference books and files were always neatly stacked on the shelves behind her. Pens, pencils and copy paper were arranged in orderly formation on the desk.

She was the first person I saw when I turned in for my first day as a trainee journalist in October 1969. I was there early, before the news editor. In a flower-sheltered corner, this woman was firing questions down a telephone. When the call was finished she made another and then another and so on.

In time I learned that a key part of Maeve Binchy’s modus operandi was to use the early quiet hours of the morning to get her telephone business out of the way, leaving time to engage with colleagues, to review work in hand or to write.

In later years, when fame and success had come, Maeve sometimes liked to portray herself as falling fortuitously into one blessed place after another. She poked fun at herself, describing near catastrophes from which she escaped by sheer luck.

Nothing could be further from the truth. She was utterly organised and professional. She worked harder than virtually anyone else I knew in that newsroom. She strategised and scheduled. She had an extraordinary capacity to contour every day to maximise her productivity.

These were years in which the daily round of Dublin journalism consisted mainly of receptions and hospitality events. Senior newsroom journalists seldom lunched alone or briefly.

When the exodus would start, usually after the news conference at about 12.30pm, Maeve would be out the door with the others. But at 3 o’clock, with too many suspiciously empty chairs around the newsroom, Maeve would be back at her desk, hammering away on the typewriter. I don’t believe she ever missed a deadline.

In her later writing years, she followed the same principles. There was a schedule for the day with a fixed time for writing. There had to be time for reading too. And there were fixed time zones for relaxation or for seeing friends.

I have the sense that without those qualities of discipline and industry, Maeve might never have been the success she became. But combined with her deep, generous humanity, her wit and her adroit, adaptable intellect, they carried her to the heights of world celebrity and acclaim.

When she moved to the newspaper’s London office and married her beloved Gordon, most of her colleagues, I think, believed that it would only be a matter of time before she would move on from The Irish Times and sign up with some Fleet Street title at a staggering salary.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for her, once the early books were successful. She could have run off a weekly column that would pay vastly more than anything The Irish Times might offer. But she remained loyal to the newspaper all of her life. She once told me how she felt it had positioned her for her success as a novelist. And she was always grateful to Douglas Gageby, my predecessor as editor, who facilitated her relocation to London with the assurance that if it did not turn out as she hoped, there would always be a place for her back in Dublin.

Down the years, whenever The Irish Times sent out the call, Maeve responded. Whether it was to provide a new short story for the dog-days of a long summer, or to turn up at some event or award, she would invariably deliver. God knows, it was not because she needed the publicity or the modest cheque. It was her generous, loyal nature and an instinct to be true to herself, to where she had come from and to the influences that had shaped her.

She was intensely loyal to her former colleagues and to friends. Tales of her generosity to others are legion.

She believed strongly that her commercial success gave her a means of helping people who might need it. A great many problems were discreetly solved or alleviated by a quiet financial intervention.

Similarly, she was generous with her encouragement to other writers. She used her huge network of industry contacts to connect new talents to agents and others who might help to bring their work to publication or to a commissioning editor’s desk.

She loved her craft in all its forms, from the colour feature, turned out against a printing deadline, to the considered, sensitive prose of the novel.

In later years, as her health declined and her mobility reduced, she was unable to lead as full a life as before. But she maintained her links, often by a postcard from “Pollyvilla”, always with well-chosen words. Organised to the end!

She loved Gordon, her extended family and her many friends. To them, we extend condolences. A great, generous, loving presence has gone from their lives.

Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times.