Sister St Dominic was a natural psychologist who seemed to know what would appeal to children. She would have been a marvellous mother

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Portrait by Phillip Reeson

Sister St Dominic was absolutely wonderful and an incredible guiding light.

Sadly, she's dead now, but she's not forgotten. The faces of a whole generation of women who were taught by her light up just at the mention of her name. She worked mainly in England, but we had her for 10 starry years in Ireland.

When I was nine I thought she was 100, but she was 92 when she died last year so she could only have been in her thirties when she taught me at the Convent of the Holy Child in Killiney. She was tall and thin, and of course in those days nuns wore black habits and a white wimple. She had round metal-framed glasses, which shone like a torch from constant cleaning, and a jolly laugh. She was one of those people who once they start laughing, can't stop.

Her main subject was geography, which I wasn't a bit good at, but she was the prefect (mistress of the school) so I would have her every day for other things, including religion. She made religion absolutely splendid.

None of us had the slightest problem with it because she made it completely reasonable, even when some of us had become "collapsed Catholics". I was easily bored, but I was never bored in Sister St Dominic's lessons and would ask leading questions such as, "Is Judas in hell?"

She was a natural psychologist. She seemed to know what would appeal to children to encourage them. She really loved children and would have been, I'm sure, a marvellous mother. She saw the dignity of children and when I became a teacher myself I based everything I did on Sister St Dominic.

When I was doing my teaching diploma I contacted her at St Leonards on Sea, where she was then working, and asked if I could practise on some of her children. She was delighted and sat at the back of the room while I taught.

Afterwards she'd say, "You were a little too hard on that girl - she was trying", or, "That talkative one - you should shut her up a bit because the others get bored", or, "Try to discover something that little mousey one is interested in and able to do". She understood every child in the class and showed me that teaching was all about caring about children and bringing them forward, not just pushing facts into them.

Her enthusiasm was infectious. I remember her lessons as if they took place yesterday. Her eyes shone as she talked about St Paul's visit to Ephesus as if she'd been there herself.

I was a good little girl and very devout. I wanted to become a saint, not just a nun - I was going to be the first Saint Maeve - because Sister St Dominic had such respect for saints and people who were good.

I was always the girl who was asked to write a thank-you letter to a visiting speaker. When I was in the fifth form I was made a Child of Mary, which was a bit like being given a religious Duke of Edinburgh Award, and had a big blue ribbon to wear. Unfortunately, it was taken away when I was discovered posting letters for the boarders to their boyfriends. Sister St Dominic caught me red-handed when some letters fell from under my tunic.

English was always my best subject and I liked history too, which I read at university. My essays were long and rambling and I'd be told, "Stick to the facts, Maeve, stick to the facts", because I embroidered and exaggerated.

My reports said I was lazy and didn't try hard enough, but Sister St Dominic would wrap her comments up nicely and say something like: "For a bright girl with an imagination it is a pity that Maeve doesn't apply herself more."

My parents were dead before I wrote my first novel and Sister St Dominic became a surrogate mother. Her approval was important to me. I sent her copies of all my books and my husband, Gordon, and I used to take her out for meals. About five years before she died she sent me a marvellous letter saying she thought she had the beginnings of Alzheimer's and wanted to say goodbye while she was able to. We kept in touch right to the end.

Novelist Maeve Binchy was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1940 Born Dublin

1945-48 St Anne's primary school, Dun Laoghaire, Ireland

1948-56 Holy Child Convent, Killiney

1956-60 University College, Dublin

1960-68 History teacher in Ireland

1968-2000 Woman's editor and columnist for Irish Times

1982 Publication of first novel, Light a Penny Candle. More than a dozen follow, including Circle of Friends (1990), Evening Class (1996), Tara Road (1998, selected for Oprah Winfrey's Book Club) and Nights of Rain and Stars (2004)

2005 Film of Tara Road released, starring Andie McDowell

2006 Short book, Star Sullivan, published as part of literacy drive for World Book Day (March 2)

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