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Mary Purcell

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 Irish people.

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

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