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!

Ireland 50 Years Ago: February 1971

Several years ago we were the fortunate recipients of a complete set of Ireland of the Welcomes from the 1970s, and guess what? That’s exactly 50 years ago! So I am going to try to chronicle 1971 for you from our vantage point of half a century later, as we go through this year, using the articles in the magazine. Call it recent history, call it nostalgia, call it an exercise in compare and contrast.

Every issue from 1971 to 1979, six issues a year

The magazine is still flourishing – indeed, it’s one of the longest periodicals of its sort in the world – and continues to put out 6 issues a year. The website describes it thus: Each issue features lavishly-illustrated articles on Irish beauty spots, regular features on Ireland’s extraordinary millennia-spanning history, remarkable literary talent and history, music and dance traditions, as well as folklore, festivals, events and so much more… The photography nowadays is superb.

Flying Pan Am into Ireland – 1970s Mad Men-style advertising

Although published by a private company now, in the 1970s Ireland of the Welcomes was an official publication of Bórd Fáilte, the Irish Tourist Board. Aimed at the overseas market, it was nevertheless also deservedly popular in Ireland. My father, who worked in marketing in Aer Lingus, brought home each issue as it came out and we poured over it. It showed us what others might find interesting about Ireland and therefore what we ourselves could be proud of. Ireland was so different then – but Ireland of the Welcomes was chronicling the emergence of who we are now.

Each issue contained pages of small ads for shops and hotels and there is a poignancy to many which have since disappeared, such as the beloved Cork institutions of Cash’s and the Munster Arcade

Because this is part of a tourism campaign, selling Ireland as a happy destination, you won’t find a mention of The Troubles in Northern Ireland here, even though killing had become an almost daily occurrence there, bombing was commonplace and internment prisons were being set up. South of the border, we are told in these pages, all is calm and friendly and everywhere you go you will meet poets, wits and artists, ready to befriend you and pour you a pint.

The couple in this ad had been able to fly to Ireland, hire the car for two weeks staying in hotels and guest houses, all for $298 per person. That’s the equivalent of $2,000 per person today, or $4,000 in total. – that €1600/3200. How does that compare?

But this was no ‘shamrocks and leprechauns’ representation of Ireland – it showed a country transitioning into the modern world, while fiercely clinging to what made us unique. Articles on heritage jostled with pieces on modern farming methods; biographies of bygone artists contrasted with a description of Rosc, the famous modern art show that everyone of my generation visited; wildlife photographs vied with pen-and-ink drawings of inviting pubs.

Two swanky hotels of my childhood – the International in Bray, long gone, and the La Touche in Greystones (currently being reborn as equally swanky apartments)

All the best people wrote for Ireland of the Welcomes: I think they must have paid well. Familiar names from the time crop up: the 1971 issues include writing by John Montague, Gerrit van Gelderen, The Knight of Glin, Maurice Gorham, Hilary Pyle, Bryan MacMahon, Mary Lavin, Terence de Vere White, Benedict Kiely, and Niall Sheridan (husband of Monica). Even the American writer, Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate), then living in a restored Georgian pile in KIlkenny (below), wrote a bon-viveur series on restaurants and hotels.

So let’s get started with the issue that was published exactly 50 years ago – January-February 1971. I turned 21 in 1971 and went from being an undergraduate to a graduate student at UCC. I was living between Cork and Dublin, with forays to Newgrange and Kerry. I spent the summer in Malahide, studying for my BA finals at the National Library and at Trinity College Library, ducking out for lunchtime concerts at St Anne’s in Dawson Street. In the autumn I set up in my very first independent flat in Cork with my friend Bessie and embarked on my Master’s in Archaeology, paying my way with what was then charmingly called a ‘Demonstratorship’ at UCC. The world was my oyster.

What the well-dressed Demonstrator was wearing in 1971

That whole sense of emerging into a modern world was true for Ireland as well in the 1970s. Anybody who lived in Dublin in the 70s will remember the Dandelion Market – it was the place to see and be seen on Saturday morning, full of hippies and trendies selling antiques, tat, artwork, crafts and lots of cool clothes. No tweed suits here – those fringed waistcoats were more my style! Take a look at RTE Archives footage from around then. Were you there? Recognise anyone?

Some of the photographs of the Dandelion Market that accompanied Maeve Binchy’s article

And guess who wrote about it in the January-February issue? Maeve Binchy! in 1971 Maeve was years away from a successful career as a novelist, but she was already a well-known columnist and editor of the women’s pages for the Irish Times. She and my mother, Lilian Roberts Finlay, shared a stage at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival in the 90s and I got to know her a little then, and as a friend of Mum’s. She was everything you imagine – warm, witty, wise and great company.

The wonderful Maeve Binchy (right), my mother, Lilian Roberts Finlay (left) and our great friend Ingrid, Vancouver, 1998

The Dandelion piece was followed by an article, Some Unexpected Ballad Writers, by Grainne Yeats. I wasn’t sure who Grainne Yeats was so I looked her up. She was WB’s daughter-in-law but that was not her claim to fame. An accomplished harpist and speaker of Irish, she was a music historian and virtuoso singer and player, performing all over the world, and an expert in the music of Turlough O’Carolan. She singlehandedly revived the playing of the kind of traditional wire-strung harp that O’Carolan would have played. Her obituary in the Irish Times spells out her many achievements, while a short YouTube clip gives you a flavour of the sound of the harp.

Her article is about a form of song that was not common in Ireland until the eighteenth century, but was then heartily embraced – the ballad. She tells of Oliver Goldsmith who, while a student at Trinity “lounged about the college gates, wrote ballads for five shillings, and crept out at night to hear them sung.” Yeats wrote ballads because he wanted his poetry to be ‘popular’ – in the sense of poetry that would belong to the people as a whole. She mentions James Joyce, Davis, Mangan, Terence MacSwiney, Arthur Griffiths. I append Yeats’s ballad, Come Gather Round Me, Parnellites, at the end of this post – read it in conjunction with this Irish Times post that lists Jack B Yeats’ illustration for this ballad as a selection for Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks.

One of several pages about the Shannon River, with detailed maps

A huge section in that same issue was devoted The Lordly Shannon. Shannon cruising was emerging as a holiday idyll and photographs showed cheerful boaters negotiating locks and fishermen hauling in salmon, interspersed with monastic ruins and enticing pub signs. It was a successful campaign – Shannon cruising is popular today and indeed by all accounts makes for a superb vacation.

The final section for Jan-Feb was devoted to the Lawrence Collection of photographs. Anyone who has ever searched for or seen old Irish photographs  will be familiar with the Lawrence Collection, now housed in the National Library. If you’re up for a good browse, take a look at their photostream on Flickr, but be warned, it’s addictive.

Robert French’s photograph of Adare in the 1880s or 1890s. The second photo was taken in 2015, just before fire destroyed some of the thatched cottages. Some or all have since been restored

Although I know about the Lawrence Collection, and had lost myself in it a few times, I wasn’t really aware that the ‘view’ photographs, 40,000 of them, had not been taken by William Lawrence himself. “The man to whom he entrusted the task of photographing Ireland was an employee named Robert French who worked anonymously for the Lawrence firm all his life.” The article, by Kieran Hickey, rescues French from that anonymity and points to the personality behind the camera, the chronicler of the social history of his time. “Despite the inflexibility of a heavy camera, a cumbersome tripod and individual glass negatives, the images are unerringly composed, never reframed in printing, and taken at the precise moment which shows the photographer’s eye to be selective, observant, patient and alert.”

1 Leinster Market, Dublin; 2 Galway City; 3 Dublin Quays; 4 and 5 Tourists in Connemara

Lawrence’s studios were destroyed in the 1916 Rising, with the loss of all the human subject photographs and negatives. But French’s enormous body of work had been stored elsewhere, which is why it is still available to us. In its sharing of this priceless collection, the National Library is meticulous in crediting Robert French as the photographer – a fitting tribute to one who laboured unrecognised for so long and contributed so much to our visual history.

My aim is to update this series every month or two with a 50 year retrospective. We’re off to a good start!

Lilian

Lilian Roberts Finlay

Lilian Roberts Finlay, the novelist and short-story writer, was brilliant, complicated, fascinating, infuriating, mendacious and beautiful. She was also my mother. She wrote all her life although she didn’t start to publish until her 70s. I recommend her book of short stories, The Bona Fide Husband, and her first novel, Always in My Mind (after that, things went downhill). Old copies are still available through Amazon.

Old Abbey Theatre

The original Abbey Theatre , which was destroyed by fire in in 1951. The Abbey School of Acting was housed in the Peacock Theatre, an annex to the main theatre

Lilian died, aged 96, in 2011. Because her books have been out of print for a long time I was surprised when a Google search turned up a very recent reference to Always in My Mind. Intrigued, I logged on to a blog called Chasing Aideen, written by Ciara O’Dowd Conway. Ciara researches and writes (beautifully) about women in the early days of the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s famous national theatre. She had been delighted to discover passages in the novel that described the narrator’s experiences as a student in the Abbey School of Acting, since the women she researches had been associated with that period (the 1930s) of the Abbey Theatre and the Abbey School as influential and pioneering actors, teachers and directors.

Riders To The Sea still

Shelagh Richards, Sarah Allgood and Ria Mooney in a 1937 film of Riders To The Sea by J M Synge

As part of the 1916 centenary celebrations the Abbey Theatre, last year, announced its 2016 year long programme. When the programme revealed how scandalously underrepresented women were as writers and directors, it created a furore. Almost overnight the WTF/Waking the Feminists movement came together to work for gender equality in Irish theatre. An exhilarating meeting in November galvanised a powerful new direction for Irish theatre women and they haven’t looked back since.

Dublin Opinion cover, 1916, De Valera, Irish women, constitution

This 1937 cover of Dublin Opinion, a satirical magazine, shows the ancient and powerful women of Ireland haunting De Valera’s dreams. While women had fought for Irish freedom and while the 1916 Declaration of Independence promised equality for all citizens, the Constitution assigned women to a ‘special role in the home’

For Ciara it was all too reminiscent of the challenges that had faced her ‘girls’ in the 30s and 40s. Was it really still going on, 80 years later? Read her piece on the WTF website to understand her reaction and her decision to use her website as her own personal contribution to Waking the Feminists.

Lilian 1937

Lilian, about the time she studied at the Abbey School of Acting

Back to Lilian. When I read Ciara’s blog piece, I contacted her to say that we had some letters from my mother’s Abbey School of Acting days that might be of interest to her. Not only that, I was able to put her in touch with Ria Mooney’s niece, a friend of mine who lives in Vancouver. Ciara and Robert and I met over coffee  in Dalkey last week and yes, the letters in the old chocolate box turned out to be grist to the mill for Ciara.

Chocolate Box

She has written a couple of posts already about them, and there are more in the works. She writes in an expressive and entertaining style, so why don’t we let her take up the tale from here? I’ve put a link so you can leave Roaringwater Journal at the end of this post and head on over to Chasing Aideen

Ciara and letter

Ciara has her first read of a long letter from Ria Mooney to Lilian

But come back when you’re finished and tell me what you thought of it all. If you want to know more about Lilian, you can read obituaries here, and here.  Just don’t believe everything you read – my mother specialised in fiction, after all.

Lilian letters

The precious letters, written 80 years, now scanned and ready for study by Ciara

OK, off you go. Read this one first, and click on ‘next post’ at the end to continue.

And next week, I’ll get back to writing about West Cork…