Irish Author Maeve Binchy attended the Holy Child School in Killiney, Ireland and recently shared more about her time as a Holy Child student
By Ellin Cavaliere Hlebik, Rosemont College Alumna
Editor’s Note: Author Maeve Binchy attended the Holy Child School in Killiney, Ireland. Rosemont College Graduate Ellin Cavaliere Hlebik had a chance to interview her.
Talking with the best selling Irish author, Maeve Binchy (pictured right), is a lot like reading one of her 16 novels. The word “entertaining” immediately comes to mind. In suburban Dublin, Ireland, we met in her skylight lit, garret-like home office she shares with her husband, Gordon Snell, journalist and children’s book author. My visit resulted from my completing The Copper Beech, one of her novels, on a flight returning from London two years ago after visiting and interviewing a variety of Sisters of the Holy Child (SHCJ) in England. (That article appeared in Rosemont College’s magazine in June 2009.) This trip, like that one, was meant to be.
As I finished the book en route over the Atlantic, I read on the back cover that Maeve Binchy had been educated at the Holy Child School in Killiney, south of Dublin, on Killiney Bay. Although this was all I knew about Maeve Binchy, I was soon to learn much more. A former classmate of hers and a SHCJ arranged the interview seven months later.
Maeve attended the Holy Child School from age 10 until 17. Often on school retreats, she read about Cornelia Connelly, the Foundress of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She remembered that each student could choose one of Cornelia’s sayings and meditate on it during the day. Maeve had chosen, “Do what you do and do it well.” Maeve also told me that the motto of Killiney School, and perhaps Cornelia’s most famous saying, “Actions Not Words,” also appealed to her a great deal.
A Great Inspiration
Our conversation then quickly turned to memories of her formative school years with the Holy Child Sisters in the 1950s and the influences of one Sister in particular, Mother St. Dominick. During these years, Mother St. Dominick, a tall, charismatic figure and a convert, taught geography. She inspired Maeve because Mother had read all of St. Ignatius’ works and writings during an extended hospital stay when she contracted malaria.
After Maeve’s mother died, Maeve accepted a summer teaching position at St. Leonard’s on Sea on the southern English coast, another SHCJ school location and site of significant events in Cornelia Connelly’s life. At the school, she was once again mentored by Mother St. Dominick. Lots of outdoor lessons on the beach ensued that summer and moved Maeve closer toward a teaching career. She subsequently taught high school until 1968 when she returned home near Dublin to care for her ill father. She found herself at a personal crossroads and she began to write and submit articles to the Irish Times, which developed into a regular job. She worked there for five years and then moved to London, where her journalism and writing career blossomed.
Maeve kept in touch with Mother St. Dominick over the years. Maeve shared that when Mother laughed, she couldn’t stop and often grew red faced. This endeared her to the girls who always found her so human and accessible, full of life. Maeve told me that years later, Mother was swarmed by former students at a wedding reception Maeve had also attended. She spent her final years at the Holy Child community with other retired Sisters in Harrogate, Yorkshire and lived well into her 90s.
Maeve believes Cornelia’s great legacy is the self-esteem and self worth her educational philosophy fostered so strongly in Holy Child educated girls. Mother influenced her both as an individual and academically. Fortunately, she lived long enough to see Maeve succeed as an author and read some of her novels.
In a prior interview years ago, Maeve said: “I suppose the best thing I did as a teacher was to try and instill confidence in the children. I once had a teacher — she’s still alive at 90 and still a nun — who always found something to admire in each child. Everybody loved her and, more importantly, we learned in her class. So, I tried to do that as well. And in the end, you get more out of children when you praise them. My large and imposing stature was also quite helpful in gaining respect!”
Mother was always highly prepared for each lesson, even a simple geography one. So Maeve also prepared to teach nature walks, not one of her natural strengths. However, Mother even had to discipline her when required. When a day student herself, a young teenaged Maeve broke the rules by attempting to smuggle out a classmate’s letter to the girl’s boyfriend and was caught red-handed in front of many students. She lost her “Child of Mary” medal. This consequence was announced in an assembly to the whole school. Nevertheless, Maeve assured me that Mother had been quite right, the standards of conduct and character had to be maintained even with a favorite pupil.
Several SHCJ I met in Dublin related that children loved Mother St. Dominick, who had a very unique persona. Smiling, Sr. Maureen Farrell, SHCJ said, “All the children trailed after Mother St. Dominick like the pied piper.” While Teresa Mee, SHCJ, was in the Killiney School for six months, she witnessed a young girl who was furiously running down the corridor. As she turned the corner, she plowed into Mother St. Dominick. This was a serious infraction of the rules so the student waited in horror for harsh words of reproach and punishment. But Mother St. Dominick surprised her by declaring with a wide grin, ”Do it again!” She saw this as an opportunity to show this child compassion. Like Cornelia had been, Mother St. Dominick was concerned with the whole individual’s education and development. Cornelia loved children, and so did Mother St. Dominick, and many other SHCJ I have met.
Sr. Teresa also offered this remembrance from the theologian, Donal Doerr, a priest who said of the Holy Child Sisters, “You can tell them anywhere, they’re self-confident, self starters, with self assurance, a SHCJ is her own person.” Whether one is a world famous author, Maeve Binchy, or a young child rushing down a corridor, or Mary Dempsey, SHCJ who is almost 90 and still baking homemade scones in the kitchen in Dublin for her fellow sisters, each is her own unique person. Cornelia’s message of spiritual simplicity: be yourself, love the children, and humbly serve, endures today more than 130 years after her death. Simple and simply amazing.
Binchy was honored last November with a lifetime achievement accolade at the Irish Book Awards for her contribution to Irish literature. To read more about the award, click here.
Ellin Cavaliere Hlebik is a graduate of Rosemont College.