‘MAEVE’S PRESENCE IS STILL HERE’
Gordon Snell, husband of the late Maeve Binchy, says his memories of her are so good he ‘can never really be sad’
The phrase sounds old-fashioned, but Gordon Snell has the most beautiful manners, and manners never go out of fashion. I’m welcomed warmly into his home in Dalkey, Co Dublin. A glass of cold sparkling water appears in front of me to quench the thirst of an unusually hot day, and he makes a thoughtful reference to something I’ve written in the past.
This is all before I’ve been in the house three minutes. In another life, Snell would have made an excellent diplomat.
The fact is, Snell’s life as a radio producer with the BBC in London took a different direction when he took a young woman on an outing to France for the day back in the 1970s.
“At that time, you could get the hovercraft from England to France. We took a hovercraft to Boulogne and went for lunch, and sat in a restaurant chatting all day, and never saw Boulogne at all.”
The young woman was Maeve Binchy, then a journalist with this newspaper, who would become an international best-selling novelist. She and Snell married in 1977 and later moved from London to Dublin, to the house he still lives in. It will be the fifth anniversary of her death this summer.
We’re talking in a comfortable little sitting room full of books. Much of one wall is occupied by copies of Binchy’s books, including those in translation. Snell shows me Japanese, Turkish and Russian editions.
“This one is Korean,” he says, and curious to see what Korean script looks like, I take the book off the shelf. It falls open on the flyleaf, with a page-long hand-written inscription from Binchy to Snell that starts, “Dearest Gordon”.
This loving and heartfelt piece of writing has flashed into my vision before I realise it’s private. The reporter in me responds with a reflexive instinct that I should memorise it, but I ignore it and snap the book shut at once, knowing it is the decent thing to do.
Eavesdropping in public, which Binchy was expert at, is perfectly acceptable; eavesdropping on a private conversation in the pages of a book in someone’s home is not.
As we talk, two cats, Audrey and Fred, wander in and out of the room. Snell often talks about Binchy in the present: “These are our cats, which we rescued.”
Asked how they chose the names for the cats, Snell chuckles. “Audrey is a character in Coronation Street. We were both addicted to watching it. One evening we were watching, and Audrey got up and said: “I’m going up to bed to knuckle down with my Maeve Binchy.”
Audrey spends much of the interview on Snell’s knee, shedding white cat hair on his scarlet jumper. He minds not one bit. “They are great company,” he says more than once.
When Audrey is not on his knee, he is holding a hardback copy of one of Binchy’s novels, Minding Frankie. It’s the first time one of her novels has been adapted for the stage; it will be performed in June at the Gaiety. Just as he did with Audrey, Snell unselfconsciously strokes the book every now and then.
He is a children’s writer, and has written many books. The couple dedicated every one of their books to each other. “We did that right from the beginning. I am very proud of that, and I was very touched to read all those dedications too. It was a very joyful thing to be able to dedicate books to each other,” he says, his hand tightly grasping the copy of Minding Frankie. To whom does he dedicate his books now?
“Nobody. There couldn’t conceivably be a substitute,” he says, looking stricken. “It would be totally impossible to do that.”
As well as writing in the same room together, they often stopped work to play a game of chess. “We didn’t believe in too much pondering; our games didn’t usually last more than an hour.” He hasn’t played chess since Binchy died. Did they ever talk about what life might be like for him after she died? “We didn’t actually, because we had got used to her being in a wheelchair. Maeve was amazingly resilient and never complained at all. Her death was a terrible shock, but everybody says you never lose the shock or the sense of loss when you lose the person you have been with for so long, and loved so much.”
Snell does not believe in an afterlife and refers to death as “the big sleep”. He is not a man of faith. “I’ve lapsed and collapsed.”
He indicates towards the hall, and the rooms beyond. “The house is very much our home and always was, so it remains a very happy place. I don’t feel sad in it. Of course I sometimes feel lonely – we were married for 35 years – but it’s not lonely to be in the house at all. Her presence is still here, and it is very much a joined house, as it were. The books have a life too, if you like, and I am surrounded by her work, which is a help too. The memories of our life are so good, and if you’ve got so much to remember that is joyful and cheerful, then you can never really be sad.”
h‘ The ouse is very much our home and always was, so it remains a very happy place. I don’t feel sad in it
A rose by his name
The loveliest thing Binchy ever did for him, he says, was having a rose named after him for a landmark birthday. The Colin Dickson nursery created Rosa Gordon Snell, a yellow rose with a faint reddish-orange shade on the outer petals. There are some in their garden and outside the front door. “It was the most startling thing anyone could ever do,” he says, smiling with delight.
Binchy was a very public figure, who earned many millions from her talent and
Gordon Snell and (below) with Fred at his home in Dalkey. PHOTOGRAPHS: CYRIL BYRNE, BRENDA FITZSIMONS