Remembering Maeve

We spent yesterday afternoon at the Echoes Festival in Dalkey, a celebration of the life and work of Maeve Binchy and her impact on Irish writing. Maeve, who died in 2012, was universally beloved, and nowhere more so than in my house. You see, Maeve was a great friend to my mother, the writer Lilian Roberts Finlay (that’s the two of them, above at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival). As a writer, Lilian was nowhere near as successful as Maeve but that didn’t matter to Maeve. She was supportive and generous and encouraging and caring: when we cleaned out Lilian’s house we found notes and cards from Maeve, always cheerful and positive. 

Lilian and Maeve shared a stage at the Vancouver Writer’s Festival in 1998 and I think every Irish person in Vancouver was at their talk, including a huge contingent from the Irish Women’s Network. It was a great success – Lilian (below) was a superb reader of her own stories (that time in the Abbey School of Acting had not been wasted) and Maeve was, well, wonderful. 

Maeve and Gordon invited Lilian and me to lunch with them at their hotel – this lunch will live in my memory forever because it confirmed what everyone always says about Maeve: she was, in person, exactly as you imagine her to be – kind, funny, fascinating, witty and incredibly warm. She and Gordon were sweet and loving with each other, with lots of banter to make us all laugh and keep the talk flowing. Because we proudly claim Maeve for Ireland, we forget that the rest of the world loved her too and often read her in translation. Maeve was huge in North America – here’s the photo by Derek Speirs that accompanied her obit in the New York Times.

The Echoes Festival afternoon we attended was a forceful reminder of what a powerhouse Maeve was in Irish writing. The discussions were wide-ranging and focused on her influence on contemporary novel-writing – her insistence on using her own voice, on being authentically Irish and never pandering to those who might not understand our idiom, on allowing Irish girls and women to see their own lives on the page. 

Moderator Caroline Erskine with Turtle Bunbury, Rachael English, Caelainn Hogan and Phil Mullen

Phil Mullen read her own story about stealing the pennies for the Black Babies, and we all nodded along in recognition, even as were were appalled at her treatment in the industrial school where she grew up. A lighter note was struck by Maeve’s cousin, Gillian Binchy, about her Communion Dress – a story worthy of Maeve herself.  

Maeve wrote for and about women (write what you know was one of her mantras, a maxim she spun into very funny anecdotes about not writing about orgies) and one of the sessions fittingly took shape around the secrets and shame faced by Irish women in the 20th century. 

At Echoes in 2017, Margaret Kelleher, UCD professor of Anglo-Irish literature and drama, said that close study of Binchy’s writing suggests she will be regarded as a “key witness and chronicler of Irish life in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the next”.

YOU STILL CAN’T HOPE FOR BETTER COMPany than maeve binchy
by Henrietta Mckervey, irish INDEPENDENT
Róisín Ingle (left) moderated a discussion with (l to r) Sarah Maria Griffin, Anna Carey and Chris Binchy

All the speakers, writers, readers and moderators were excellent. We’re already planning to attend the full event next year. And – can we say – this was our first live-audience indoor event in almost two years. Tickets were limited to ensure social distancing, and we wore masks throughout, but oh my goodness how great it felt to be part of a live event again!

Viking Traces

If you want to find some remote Irish history which is a long way off the beaten track, try the city of Dublin! Just a few minutes’ drive from the edge of this bustling metropolis (and down a long, rough and muddy farm track) is a collection of carved stones which have their roots in the time of the Vikings.

Here, in the barony of Rathdown, the remains of a small ruined church date from the twelfth century, but a monastic settlement was set up long before that by St Comgall of Bangor, who lived from 520 to about 600 AD. There is the stump of a round tower here, known locally as the Skull Hole, as bones from the surrounding graveyard were thrown in here. Some say, also, that it is actually the entrance to an underground tunnel going down to the coast: furthermore, a piper was once seen to enter the tunnel playing his pipes – but was never seen again!

There is another piping tale connected with a nearby site: Puck’s Castle. A fairy piper is often seen jumping from rock to rock while also playing his pipes. We watched and listened, but in vain . . . Here are some of the noteworthy ‘modern’ gravestones in the cemetery at Rathmichael:

But the real treasure of the place are the carved stones which date from Viking times, and which are probably early Christian grave markers. They are generally known as The Rathdown Slabs. Some of these we would classify as ‘Cross Slabs’, even though, on some, the cup marks and concentric circles make us think of Prehistoric Rock Art. Well worn by time and weather we can still make out the various motifs – and we are fortunate to have good drawn records of these stones dating from a study carried out by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and published in volume 87 of the Journal of that Society in 1957.

Rathdown Slabs (top to bottom): 1 and 2; 8 and 9; 3 and 4 – as classified by P Ó hÉailidhe in his 1957 study

From around 850 AD we find mention of Norse names: Amláib (Olaf the White) arrived in Dublin in 853 and ruled jointly with Ímar (Norse Ívarr inn beinlausi – ‘Ivar the Boneless’). Amhláib was a Norwegian but Ímar may have been a Dane. Ímar is mentioned as ‘king of all the foreigners in Ireland’ at his death in 873. The grave slabs at Rathmichael probably date from the time when Viking settlements were established in the Dublin area, and – although we tend to think of the Vikings as plunderers of monasteries – it seems that they began to follow Christian practices once they settled in Ireland. 

Top – Rathmichael Church with its round tower and Viking graves was established on an ancient Rath or fort, in fact one of the largest in the locality: you can see the probable circular outline of the fort in this extract from the National Monuments Service Archaeological Survey Database; middle – ruins of the medieval church at Rathmichael and, lower – fragments of Bullaun Stones at the church site

Other – probably related – inscribed slabs from the wider area are recorded by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe (below): Dalkey Castle Heritage Centre displays one of the finest of them all (left), while the Tully Slab (right) is assumed to have come from another remote church ruin close by – however I cannot find any record of its current whereabouts. If anyone can throw light on this, please let us know.

Dalkey and Tully grave slabs – drawn by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, 1950s

I have used the drawings by Ó hÉailidhe because they are so clear: we visited the Rathmichael site this week and were struck by how faded much of the inscription seems to be. It could be that we were not seeing the carvings in a good, clear light. Worryingly, it may also be that the stones are suffering from accelerated weathering (much as our unprotected medieval high crosses appear to be) due to acid rain and pollution. You can see for yourselves by comparing the drawings above with our own photographs, a selection of which form the tailpiece of this post.