One of Ireland’s most popular writers, Maeve Binchy, had ambitions to be a saint all through her childhood, adolescence, even into her twenties. And with the eternal optimism of youth was quite sure that if she applied herself sternly to the task, we would all be praying for her intercession with the Almighty today. Despite her best efforts, however, her human side tripped her up. In John Quinn’s book Beginnings,* he introduces us to a variety of people who set out to achieve their ambitions with a firm vision ahead and hope in their hearts, which sometimes came to fruition, but other times miss their target like a damp firework.
Poor Maeve believed that she had a special relationship with God. She regarded Him as a friend, as Irish as the green fields, and somebody who knew her well. Hadn’t He tried her with various tests, to see how she could endure suffering. One test was being bad at sport; but by far the worst was making her fat at school. That was a torture but she had endured it as cheerfully as she could, and so she felt she was on the road to sainthood.
She had some particular Catholic worries, however. She dreaded that she might have a ‘vision’. Saints who had a vision usually ended up a martyr. She wanted to be a non-martyred saint. She had heard that the children of Fatima saw Our Lady in a tree. If Maeve was ever walking along the road with plenty of trees on either side, she kept her eyes firmly down.
There was also the worry of a father of her friend who was a Protestant, a lovely man who bought Maeve big ice-creams. While his Catholic wife and children went to Mass on Sundays he would spend the time walking on Dún Laoghaire pier. Maeve was seriously concerned that the unfortunate man would go to Hell when he died. She and her friend fretted about this dilemma, and set about trying to convert him. Their efforts failed.
Part of the sainthood thing, however, was becoming a Child of Mary. This involved a combination of being in a sodality - a religious group - and being a prefect at school. You couldn’t become a Child of Mary unless your peers and the nuns said that you were a person of great worth, high leadership quality, and all the rest of it. The initiation required a one-day retreat, which was made on December 8, concluding with an investiture into the saintly realm of a Child of Mary. Maeve recalls that it was a lovely ceremony, with candles all round. She wore a veil, and a big blue ribbon with the Child of Mary medal on it. ‘I was bursting with the importance of it all, and always wore this big ribbon on my plump green chest.’
But it was not to last. A very short time afterwards she was stripped of her medal, just like a soldier who has his medals and buttons cut from his uniform when he is being cashiered from the army for some serious misdemeanour.
It happened because Maeve was a very generous girl, a virtue not given any marks for in the Child of Mary code. There were boarders and day-girls at her school. Most of the boarders had boyfriends. Maeve had become very popular by volunteering to post the boarders letters to their boyfriends, on her way home from school. She would stuff the letters down the front of her gym slip, and walk nonchalantly home via a letter box.
‘Not to be trusted’
One afternoon she was confronted by a nun who kept talking to her and asking if she was allright because Maeve, looking guilty and distressed, was clutching her chest as if she was dying of angina. “Oh, I’m fine Mother, fine…’ she blurted out, as one by one the letters slipped from under her gym slip onto the floor. The nun picked them up and read out the addresses one by one: Master Sean O’Brien, Master John Smith, and so on. Maeve felt the pit of hell opening up in front of her. ‘Isn’t it very sad my dear,’ she said icily, ‘that you are not a person to be trusted? Tomorrow morning at assembly, you will give your medal back.’
The next morning, in front of the entire school, a red-eyed Maeve, handed back the Child of Mary medal. In the hot-house atmosphere that existed in a girl’s school in those days it was a bitter disappointment. Maeve did become a heroine among the senior girls by refusing to reveal the names of the letter writers, but because she was on her way to sainthood, it was not enough to be a heroine at school, she would have much preferred to have been a Child of Mary.
NOTES: Maeve Binchy did become a saint of sorts for her humorous and sympathetic novels, short stories, and articles which she wrote mainly on life in small-town Ireland. Her 16 novels sold more than 40 million copies. A new Maeve Binchy book at Christmas guaranteed big sales for booksellers. She died in July 2012 aged 73, and was nationally mourned.
*Beginnings explores dreams and choices made by many well known people, of roads taken, and not taken and lessons learned. Its author John Quinn, from Clarinbridge, but a faithful son of Ballivor, Co Meath, (don’t mispronounce it! ), has been a familiar broadcaster with RTE for many years, and a successful writer of both adult and children’s books including This Place Speaks to me, and Letters to Olive. Published by Veritas, Beginnings is on sale €15.