top of page - 2nd September 2023 - Henrietta McKervey

‘Maeve Binchy asked if we wanted her papers... The answer was: yes, yes yes’

A look inside the author’s archive at the UCD Library reveals that a literary treasure trove featuring the likes of James Joyce and Seamus Heaney is soon to become even more accessible to the public.

‘You don’t have to whisper,” says Katherine McSharry, director of cultural heritage at UCD Library. She and her colleague, assistant librarian Eugene Roche, have been showing me around Maeve Binchy’s literary archive, and the tour has moved to a private storage area tucked away behind the public reading room. Without realising it, I had dropped my voice to museum level.

“Everyone automatically whispers,” she says. This vast area is white-walled and cold. It’s 15.5C, Roche explains; at least four degrees colder than the public areas. The space is divided into a series of shuttered bays, each of which can be manually opened to create a long, walled corridor. McSharry twists a steering wheel, and the entire Maeve Binchy archive appears; shelf upon shelf of neatly labelled cardboard boxes. The wizard’s curtain has been pulled back.

McSharry’s job includes responsibility for the National Folklore Collection and UCD Archives. They are showing me the Special Collections, a unique cultural archive including literary papers and original materials by Maeve Binchy, James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, Mary Lavin, Edna O’Brien and Frank McGuinness, among others. While the Binchy archive is one of its most significant additions in recent years, the collection is also home to materials dating back to the 15th century.

“This is what I spend a fair proportion of my life doing, and it’s absolutely wonderful work,” Roche says, gesturing to a wall of books five shelves high. Originally part of the Franciscan library in Killiney, this beautiful collection — the oldest book is from around 1470 — comprises 5,000 volumes, some of which are extremely valuable. The first thing Roche did when they arrived was to dust each book by hand: “The trick is to use make-up brushes.”

Maeve Binchy graduated from UCD with a BA in 1959. Back in the reading room, McSharry shows me a selection from her archive, which covers more than five decades. “In 1991, Maeve contacted the then librarian and asked if the library was interested in her papers. The answer was, yes, yes, yes!” Roche recalls. The donation was made in three tranches; the first two organised by Maeve herself, the third donated by her husband Gordon Snell after her death in 2012.

Evelyn Flanagan, head of special collections, has managed the collection for the library, and it took her, plus a team of postgraduate students and faculty from the MA in Archives and Records Management, a full term to archive the contents. Appropriately enough for a national treasure, the Binchy archive is a treasure trove. It includes a copy of A Kibbutz Welcome, her first printed article: famously, her father was so taken by her letters home from a summer spent in Israel that he trimmed off the ‘Dear Daddy’ bits and submitted them to this newspaper for publication.

The collection features personal scrapbooks and extensive correspondence with family, colleagues and friends — including her long-time fan Barbara Bush.

In a note from November 1992, the former US first lady invites Maeve to Houston, Texas, and promise “I will not make you walk a mile again”. In another, from December 1999, she refers to her sons Jeb and George W being state governors and one of them running for president. They are “decent honest politicians”, she adds.

Boxes of newspaper clippings include a selection of outraged letters to the Irish Times from November 1973 following her hilarious report on the wedding of Princess Anne to Captain Mark Phillips (“The bride looked as edgy as if it were the Badminton Horse Trials and she was waiting for the bell to gallop off.”)

“There’s something really special about sitting in front of a piece of paper that came from someone’s desk, that they looked at, thought about, wrote on, and that now has come to you,” McSharry says.

She’s so right: I find it both exciting and humbling to look into the past and see such established, world-renowned works as Light a Penny Candle, Circle of Friends and Echoes guttering into life.

Yellow typed pages from a draft of Light a Penny Candle are entitled ‘Aisling’ and ‘Elizabeth’. The shooting schedule for Circle of Friends appears under its working title, Good Girls.

A numbered list of new scenes needed for Echoes has ‘For Maeve’ written in blue pen on the top, with each item marked off with her emphatic teacher’s tick. Letters from her agent and close friend Christine Green intersperse gossip and personal news (“this knee business is very worrying; I think that as soon as you’re back, I’m going to deliver to you Edna. She has got hold of this extract of mollusc for you!”) with practical, no-nonsense notes on Maeve’s work in progress, such as: “Thanks for the further bit of novel: just one comment at this stage. Beware of making it too talky.”

“This archive tells us all kinds of things about ourselves, about Ireland, about the world, and about how writers create, think, and, in Maeve’s case, enjoy life,” McSharry says. “When we look into the papers, all kinds of facets of Maeve’s life and career are on show: her very early work as a journalist, her starting life as a writer of short stories, of novels, screenplays, plays. We see the to and fro that goes along with that — working with publishers, designers, film and production crews.

“Because she had this incredibly interesting and enjoyable life as a writer, we see all of those elements: photographs on set, corrections to the screenplays of publications she was working on; thinking about what might go on the dust jacket or cover of her novels. And because Maeve was, as anyone who read her work knows, both a deeply wise and profound person in terms of her understanding of the human condition, and someone who had a great sense of fun and liveliness, that comes through in the archive as well.”

Every October, Echoes, Ireland’s only literary festival with Maeve at its heart, celebrates her and the best of contemporary writing in Ireland. On Friday, October 6, there is a rehearsed reading of her first stage play, End of Term, directed by Conall Morrison. The story of three teachers in a convent school whose lives are upended by a devious pupil, it was first staged in the Abbey in 1976. When Echoes director Margaret Dunne began to plan End of Term, she hit a snag: the only copy of the play available was a page short. And not just any page, but the last one. Margaret Kelleher, professor of Anglo-Irish literature and drama at UCD, contacted the archive. There it was: the missing sheet.

McSharry shows me the page, but I hesitate before touching it. Shouldn’t I be wearing white gloves?

No, she says. “There’s been a dispute for years between pro-gloves and anti-gloves lobbies. Anti-gloves say that if you wear gloves you reduce your feeling of touch through fingers, so if you’re wearing gloves you actually do more damage than not; when gloves extend beyond your fingertips you’re much less dexterous. Clean, dry hands is all we require.”

Roche notes that Prof Kelleher was one of the first to champion Binchy as a social and cultural critic whose work deserved greater study by academics. Curiosity about new sources of social history crops up elsewhere too, he says: social commentary from the 1950s and 1960s is becoming a favourite subject of students using the archive. He cites the collection of Catholic Truth Society pamphlets, which touch on a fascinating range of topics. “They were sitting there for a long time, but in the last five years there has been incredible interest in them from social historians. There’s one called ‘A Chaste Courtship’ that undergraduates find very funny.”

Witnessing writers’ different processes lends enormous insight into their creative lives. Some authors are clearly inveterate revisers and editors, others far less so. Roche says that Frank McGuinness’s draft work is always close to the finished edit, suggesting, “a lot of his process seems to happen before it gets to the page”. McGuinness is also “one of the last who starts off in pen and ink. And maybe a second draft in pen as well, which is very rare.”

McSharry points out how researchers tracked James Joyce’s deteriorating eyesight through a series of letters. “Joyce’s handwriting is particularly difficult to read,” she explains. “As he gets older, his eyesight becomes really bad. You can trace the line from his earliest writing, which is much easier to read, and you can see it’s clearly the same hand, but it deteriorates.”

The Joyce archive also includes a number of glass photographic plates — essentially, the negatives — of some of his most iconic images, including the jaunty shot of him standing in front of a greenhouse wearing a yachting cap. A BBC documentary crew came to film the plates last year, and Roche recalls spending the day in a state of trepidation: “It was the first time I had taken the plates out from their protective wrappers. We handle glass all the time, but I was so conscious of their historic weight.” It’s so satisfying to explore a collection that’s based entirely on print and images. But what is the future for literary archives in a digital world? In a word: complicated.

“It’s much harder than taking boxes,” McSharry says. “Paper is very ephemeral and fragile, but we know how to look after it. We can’t be sure we know how to look after digital material for the future, because it hasn’t been around that long. A whole series of complicated issues to do with tracking provenance makes it much more complicated than paper. One of the big challenges that nowhere has really cracked yet is how do you then present that material back to someone? If someone gives you thousands and thousands of pages of digital drafts or emails, how do you show that to a researcher in a way that actually is useful?”

It’s an issue that institutions everywhere are struggling with. “Using large bodies of data for research is being investigated in computer science departments, on digital humanities projects, and in libraries. Worldwide, nowhere has solved it completely satisfactorily yet,” McSharry adds.

Just before I leave, I admit that I hadn’t realised the archives were open to anyone by appointment, not just for staff and students. It’s a common problem, McSharry explains, and one they are beginning to solve.

“Everything is quite forbidding-looking: the big glass front, the gates... all the visual cues say: ‘Don’t come in’. But when you do get here, it’s really friendly and welcoming.”

A redevelopment will bring the Special Collections, the National Folklore Collection and UCD Archives together in one Cultural Heritage Centre with a reading room, a new exhibition area and space for teaching and learning, events and visits.

In the meantime, a selection of literary gems from the Special Collections, including a map Maeve drew by hand to work out the topography of a fictional town, and a book from the Franciscan collection printed in 1493, feature in a new exhibition in Dublin’s Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI) which opens on October 19.

During the visit, I notice that McSharry and Roche refer to the archive’s writers in the present tense, regardless of whether they are alive or dead. It’s easy to see why: millions of living moments and ideas are captured in this room. It is a real-time celebration of imagination and inspiration. Of writers’ joys and sorrows, successes and failures, and of the new worlds that words create.

Here, we see Maeve Binchy’s life as a storyteller in action, and can enjoy the power her writing continues to have. McSharry says that working here often makes her think of what Seamus Heaney referred to as the “human chain” of writers. “It goes from the writer to the reader, putting us into direct connection with someone who may be lost to us in person, but is with us forever in their work.”

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