Synopsis: ST ANN’S well in Whitethorn Woods is the centre of controversy – the holy well that gives everyone their heart’s wish is due to be obliterated by a big tarmac bypass. Maeve Binchy tells the stories of the people of Rossmore, the town being bypassed.
I’VE OFTEN wondered what would have happened if the occupying British had decided to drive a huge road through Tara, ancestral home of the High Kings.
There would have been holy murder.
Maybe Maeve Binchy was thinking of the same road when she wrote about Whitethorn Woods, where a shrine to St Ann, grandmother of Jesus, draws troubled people to ask the saint for help.
A bypass for the town, badly needed, is planned. Traffic is mad, a child has been killed.
People are taking sides – “pious, old-fashioned, superstitious people standing in the way of progress, the old Irish rooted in history and
traditions against the good modern Ireland which wanted to improve life for everyone”, as one character puts it.
Now, Maeve Binchy doesn’t do dark. You can confidently take a bet that you’ll never read the phrase “a frenzied stabbing attack” in one of her books. Bold little girls aren’t slapped by their mother then snatched by a mad man with a Rapunzel complex and jailed for 10 years, no remission, in a purpose-built cell.
Her stories are, in essence, fairytales with happy endings. Good things happen to the good, and only the bad, greedy, selfish people are sent to Hell, though even that is an angry, envious Hell of their own making.
Rossmore’s best person is Neddy Nolan – “not the sharpest knife in the drawer”, but sweet and slow and intelligent with the warm, uncalculating wit of someone who isn’t chasing ambition.
Neddy simply doesn’t see his brother’s crookedness, at first, and inadvertently reveals a scam to his boss on the buildings in London.
He’s kept home then to keep house for the brother and the other builders, and over the years of doing odd jobs and minding people, he saves a fortune, so he’s able to buy the family farm. And he’s so nice that the lovely local teacher marries him.
Another character wakes up in the horrors after getting too drunk the night before her big interview. She’s convinced that she’s taken the taxi driver home to bed, all because the man she loves fancies someone else. But instead, the taxi driver has taken her drunken advice – and both of them get their wishes.
The young curate does the work of the parish and tries to mend all the broken hearts and broken lives around him, while minding the doting parish priest with the help of a Latvian man.
They’re not all wonderful people: there’s a lazy, crabbed doctor who drives out a young competitor; there’s a mad woman who persuades a suicidal friend to take her lover’s new mot with him when he goes – and there’s her mother, who then steals her conman lover.
But the stories as a whole are as warm and cosy as a turf fire, just right for toasting your toes and holding off the cold reality of winter outside.
Maeve Binchy was born and brought up in a big happy house in Dalkey, eldest of the four children of loving parents.
She went to Holy Child in Killiney, then UCD, and worked as a teacher – in one Jewish school the grateful parents gave her a trip to a kibbutz, which is echoed in one of the threads in Whitethorn Woods.
Her parents sent her letter home from the kibbutz to the Irish Independent, and after it was published she kept writing, beginning a column for The Irish Times and becoming the paper’s London corr, where she met and married another writer, Gordon Snell.
Her fans’ (including me) greatest favourites were her gossipy stories of things overheard, vignettes like the one about the lad, watched by fascinated queues, who checked his appearance in the bank’s one-way glass before coming in and joining the longest queue – for the clerk he obviously fancied like mad...
Whitethorn Woods is another feast for all those who love Maeve Binchy’s books.