SOMETIMES I AM CROSS-EXAMINED
BY PEOPLE WHO WANT to know why I have, up to the present, written
only four books, while my brother has five to his credit. Remembering
that I am almost ten-and probably look twenty-years older than
Paddy, I try to apologize for myself. But the interrogation usually
goes a step further. I am asked what saint did I write about
in my first book. I apologize again and abjectly explain that
The Pilgrim Came Late was a book about a murderer. After that,
naturally, conversation lags a bit. Before I've made up my mind
to wax confidential about the dancing-and similar diversions-that
took up a lot of spare time in my twenties, or to mention the
card-playing-and similar diversions- that absorbed a lot of time
and money during my thirties, someone has passed the inevitable,
if fatuous, remark that life begins at forty. I agree, shake
hands all around, and take to my heels.
I was born all of fifty-one
years ago, on May 28, 1906, "by the banks of the Suir that
flows down by Mooncoin." Our particular perch on the Suirside
was named Moonveen, a townland marked only on Ordnance Survey
maps. It was a quiet and lovely place with a wood where The Hunt
came, a river bend round which the fishermen rowed, and wonderful
characters like Ned Mack Doyle, Billy the Boll, Big Henry and
Lizzie Mistletoe, and Biddy-Bean-Bhocht.
My parents taught in Carrigeen
school. When I was four we moved to Carrigeen village and I lived
there for the next ten years, attending my mother's school and
going every Saturday to the Mercy Convent, Waterford, for lessons
in Irish, step-dancing, violin, piano, painting, and heaven-known-what-else.
My next five years were spent in St. Louis Convent, Monaghan,
and from 1926 to 1928 I was in Carysfort Training College for
Teachers. From 1928 to 1935 I taught in Dunmore School, just
outside Kilkenny. Since 1935 I have taught in Dublin city, first
in Marino, and for the past fifteen years in St. Joseph's, a
school on the Quays, just across the Liffey from Guinness's.
I wrote a crime novel in 1946
and, simultaneously, began writing feature articles for a juvenile
paper-mostly potted biographies of heroic characters likely to
appeal to young people. In 1947 I got the idea of writing about
St. Joan and began research work in earnest, trying to fit as
much French and history study as possible into fairly full days.
Later that year, I began to work as assistant editor of The Pioneer,
the organ of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the
Sacred Heart, a reparation society numbering almost half a million
I had a bit of bad luck that
year when, on my first visit to France in connection with my
studies, I was unmercifully bitten by relay squads of mosquitoes
and got a bloodpoisoning that necessitated my taking the first
available plane back. Aer Lingus was booked up for weeks, so,
after a nightmare twenty-four hour wait at le Gare des Invalides,
I got transport on an America-bound plane that was touching down
at Shannon. I had to be rushed to Barrington's Hospital where
I spent the remaining weeks of my summer holidays!
I do not find that teaching
school all day, and switching over to writing-either for The
Pioneer or my own books -in the evenings, makes me over-tired.
In fact, one occupation acts as a foil to the other. Being with
the little ones-four to eight years are the ages in our school-has
the effect of making me not quite equal to adult company for
several hours after school; but an hour of intensive study pulls
me right back among the grown-ups again. Similarly, after an
evening spent in concentrating on writing or reading or study,
when I am likely to arrive in the classroom in a particularly
exalted or abstracted state of mind, I have those about me who
can be guaranteed to bring me to earth again speedily.
Only the other morning I decided
to improve the shining hour by telling, in simplified form, an
anecdote I had come across in some reading the previous night.
In the middle of my tale, I nabbed two "whisperers"
in the back desk. The chief culprit was told to stand up and
shout out for the benefit of all the subject under discussion.
It was myself, not my story. And the gist of the confab was that
"Joe only said the teacher's hair was gettin' very grey."
See what I mean !
Writing does not come easily
to me. It took me more than four years to write The Halo on the
Sword, a story of St. Joan. Frequently I have to rewrite a paragraph
many times before it satisfies me. If I see a play or read a
new poem that appeals to me, I can then write with great speed
and ease, going on far into the night. But such poems and plays
are rare, and if you want to know what appealed to me most in
recent years, the play I liked best was Bryan Mac Mahon's Bugle
in the Blood; while Padraic Fallon's poem "The Countryman"
and the Gaelic poems of Seumas O h-Aodha and Seumas O'Neill struck
some responsive chord in me.
I can go for several weeks
without any recreation. Then I go on a 'thriller-binge,' reading
a cross-section of all the latest in murders. Not cleverly-constructed
problems in detection, but just murder stories. I often promise
myself that, if ever I have spare time again, I will write another
murder story. I spend my time during bus rides and traffic-jams
in thinking up murder. Indeed, I have four perfectly fool-proof
ways of doing away with the Awful People who giggle at the wrong
lines and times in Abbey, Gate, and Longford plays. But, alas!
even mayhem isn't quite what it used to be. As the Cost of Living
goes up the Murder Business deteriorates. So, for the moment,
I have foresworn my evil designs and am cleaving to the saints.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Books by Miss
Purcell include The Pilgrim Came Late (Clonmore, 1948), The Halo
on the Sword: St. Joan of Arc (Newman, 1952), Don Francisco:
the story of St. Francis Xavier (Newman, 1954), and Matt Talbot
and His Times (Newman, 1955).
Originally published by Walter Romig
in The Book of Catholic Authors