Page 6, 28th September 1984

28th September 1984
Page 6
Page 6, 28th September 1984 — Literally a prize writer

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Locations: Dublin, Cambridge, Toronto


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Literally a prize writer

MARY PURCELL, Ireland's leading Catholic writer and biographer, has been chosen by the Medical Missionaries of Mary to write the official biography of their foundress, Mother Mary Martin. This important work on this dynamic modern order will he published in 1987 to mark the Golden Jubilee of the foundation of the Congregatiol. The publisher is Gill and Macmillan of

The literary reputation of Mary Purcell, stands high internationally, particularly in 'the United States of America. Miss Purcell shuns publicity, and when I talked with her recently in Dublin, I had to remind her of her literary awards.

She was awarded the

American Catholic Literal.. Foundation-Award for her study of Joan of Arc, The Halo on the Sword, for which the French Government gave her the "Palmes Academiques". Her study of Gonzalo de Cordoba, The Great Captain, won for her the Spanish Government award of the 'Real Academia de Cordoba'.

She received the 'Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice' from Pope Pius XII, and she was received in private audience by Pope Paul VI when she presented him with a specially bound and inscribed volume of her best seller in three languages. Matt Talbot, and his Times'. Matt, incidentally was employed in the timber yards in Dublin of the Martin family, whose daughter founded the Medical Missionaries of Mary.

Talking with Miss Purcell in her apartment in a beautifully restored Georgian house in Dublin, conveniently near the Jesuit Church of St Francis Xavier in Gardiner Street, where Matt Talbot, worshipped, she told me she began her writing with a novel, The Pilgrim Came Late, the story of a double murder and a study of the murderer who was hanged, through circumstantial evidence for a murder he did not commit, while getting away with an earlier murder of which he was never suspected!

Then followed what the Americans called in the fifties, 'fictional biographies'. One was on St Joan, prompted by Christopher Casson's sister who played in Shaw's St Joan to British troops in Germany, and

ho was dissatisfied with any books on St Joan she had read.

The then Archbishop of Dublin, and the Council investigating the cause of Matt Talbot asked her to write a book on him.

She then made a great change in her writing in revolt against the type of hagiography then in vogue which was too pious and 'sugary'. She discovered the Clark lectures given in Cambridge in 1928 by Andre Maurois, and Harold Nicholson's Hogarth lectures given the previous year. She studied these, and Leon Edel's Alexander lectures in Toronto, and set to work by putting into practice what she had learned from these masters of the biographical art.

Then came The First Jesuit, her study of St Ignatius of Loyola, and The World of Monsieur Vincent, on St Vincent de Paul. The Quiet Companion, on Blessed Peter Fevre SJ, The Vincentians, and A Time of Sowing, a study of the Irish Province of the St John of God Brothers.

Last year she edited The GAA in Its Time, the definitive work on the GAA by her late brother, Paddy Purcell, the famed sports editor of the Irish Press. Paddy was also a novelist of note with his The Quiet Alan, and Keeper of the Swans, and Hanrahan's Daughter.

With her knowledge of Irish, French and Spanish, Mary Purcell travels a great deal in Europe for on the spot investigations and historical research for her books.

I asked Miss Purcell what biographers she herself most admired and unhesitatingly she replied, Lord David Cecil, The Marchesa Iris Origo, Andre Maurois, C V Wedgewood and Rupert Hart-Davis.

Irish biographers are surprisingly few, but she reads and re-reads Leon O'Broin and Sean O'Faolain.

Of all biographies her favourite is Duff Cooper's


There is no doubt that the Medical Missionaries of Mary have a best seller in their hands. I had the privilege of knowing Mother Mary Martin, and the story I like best about her, is of the Aer Lingus check-in clerk at Dublin airport, who looked up at her as she presented her ticket on the occasion of one of her many flights to Africa, and who had heard so much about her in the news that he said, 'Oh, I thought you were a saint!' I think he was right.

Terence Sheehy

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