Maeve Binchy in the tap-dancing days

Memories of the great Irish author, who died 10 years ago

Before she was a journalist and a great novelist Maeve Binchy, who died 10 years ago this summer, was a teacher. And she taught me. This was in Pembroke School, aka Miss Meredith’s, on Pembroke Road in Ballsbridge. Now closed nearly 20 years, it was a secondary school for girls and a primary school for both girls and boys. Three former government ministers were junior pupils about the time I was there. A cabinet minister once suggested that a great quiz question would be to ask what three then current ministers attended the same girls’ school.

Maeve came to Miss Meredith’s in the early 1960s with a degree from UCD and a H Dip in education following a placement in Cork. She didn’t like her time in Cork and often told us so, then and later.

She taught history, at which she was brilliant and enthusiastic, Latin, of which she knew a little but kept the translations on her lap under the desk, and religious knowledge, of which she knew little. Miss Meredith’s was a small school and teachers had to double up on subjects outside their own sphere. It was unusual also in being a Catholic girls’ school that was not a convent. Very old Miss Meredith, a convert, would come down every day from her home in Rathgar to call the roll.

It was a good school and I loved my time there. There was little discipline and the state curriculum was followed in a rather unorthodox way. Third and fourth years were amalgamated, as were fifth and sixth years. This meant you did your Inter in third year and your Leaving Cert the next year. If you failed an exam you repeated the year. Since one was often a year or two ahead of our contemporaries, there was no pressure to study. However, it did mean that some of us ended up qualified but too young to go to university. There was no gap year so you just returned for another year.


Much to the amusement of The Irish Times newsroom, it was a while before I got over the habit of calling her ‘Miss Binchy’

Misdemeanours or missing homework were punished by detention but since the lay teachers were anxious to get home it tended to end very early. Miss Meredith’s taught us that we were responsible for ourselves and that was a great preparation for college. No one stood over you to ensure your work was done.

Maeve fitted in well and was popular with everyone. She was closer in age to us than most of the teachers. For some strange reason history class was at 9am three days a week, other days it started at 9.30am, so we were often late. Maeve locked the classroom at 9.05am so you had to sit outside. When she was late we locked her out and I remember our outrage when we saw her storm off across the road into Searsons pub.

Before she joined The Irish Times Maeve did a lot of freelance, and mostly travel, writing. She also did some teaching at a Jewish primary school off the South Circular Road. On one occasion, when her commitments there clashed with a trip abroad, she asked me to fill in for her. She coached me on what had to be done and off I went with her files and books. It was a disaster. Having no teacher training I quickly lost control of the classroom and uproar ensued. The head teacher had to dash in and take over. I wasn’t asked again.

When Maeve took over the Women’s Page from the wonderful Mary Maher, lately deceased, she became my boss. Much to the amusement of the newsroom it was a while before I got over the habit of calling her “Miss Binchy”. She kept at her travel writing and was most generous with passing on trips to others.

Later, when we were both in the London office of The Irish Times, I became her boss and she was still a joy to work with. Because she knew Cyprus well, and because she could get there quickly from the UK, Maeve was sent to the island when the Turks invaded in 1974. She was not a war correspondent and never wished to be.

I still have the letter she sent from the front line and it is full of fear and anguish. She wrote of 100 correspondents fighting over one telephone, of no feed back from Dublin as to whether her stories had got through or not, of her crying over a dead soldier, sleeping on a concrete floor and having no food.

She asks me to tell the editor “that I’m not frightened or anything, only nearly at nervous breakdown stage over the lack of being able to tell what’s happening”. She didn’t go to war again but concentrated on her great talents — colour and feature writing.

There were wonderfully happy times in London. Once, and to much general amazement, we and a few others including her cousin the actor Kate Binchy, took up tap-dancing and went to lessons in Covent Garden. I still have my barely-used tap shoes. There was her lovely wedding to Gordon Snell, the parties in their west London home and the steady stream of her amusing friends visiting from Dublin. The Irish Times Fleet Street office was a hub of laughter and gossip but, I must add, the work got done and very satisfactorily too.

When I hear the constant mention of her name it brings back those happy memories and it doesn’t seem at all like 10 years. Or when I think of London, 45 years.