Purcell, Mary (1906–91), teacher, religious biographer, and archivist, was born 28 May 1906 in Moonveen, Carrigeen, Co. Kilkenny, one of three children of Richard Purcell, of Moonveen, and Anastasia Purcell (née Doyle), both of whom were schoolteachers. After attending the St Louis Convent in Monaghan, she entered Carysfort College in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, to train as a teacher, a career she pursued from 1928 to 1958 in Dublin and Kilkenny. She resided at 32 Gardiner St., formerly Fleming's Hotel, for the last fifty-six years of her life. According to some accounts, she began writing to pay off a gambling debt. Her first book, The pilgrim came late (1946), was a murder mystery. In order to add authenticity to her description of the protagonist's execution, she attended a public vigil at Dublin's Mountjoy jail. Her first two books were fictional biographies; and the first, her life of St Joan of Arc, The halo on the sword (1950), won the French Academy's Palmes Academiques and the US Catholic Book of the Month award. Subsequently, she focused on ‘real’ biographies, and her next work, Matt Talbot and his times (1954), was commissioned by Archbishop J. C. McQuaid (qv) of Dublin in 1953. Because McQuaid restricted her use of sources to typed records of the tribunal of inquiry, she reissued a more comprehensive study in 1990. Other biographies (over fifteen in all) included lives of St Ignatius of Loyola, St Francis Xavier, and the Blessed Peter Favre. Her life of Gonzalo de Cordoba (on whose life the legendary ‘El Cid’ was based), The great captain (1962), received the Spanish government award of the Real Academia de Cordoba. Additionally, she was an assistant editor (1947–65) of Pioneer.
In the 1960s she developed a career in catechetics, and was catechetical supervisor to the Dublin diocese until she retired at the same time as McQuaid in 1972. She successfully combined her careers in education and catechetics when she became (1960) a supervisor in the department of education at UCD, for the higher diploma in catechetics. To coincide with the new more relaxed attitudes in Ireland after Vatican II, she wrote a series of six doctrinal books and teachers’ guides for use at primary level, books 4–6 written in conjunction with Brother J. C. Moore. She also published several instructional pamphlets for parents and children in the Irish Messenger series in the late 1960s.
In 1973 Archbishop Dermot Ryan (qv) invited her to work in the diocesan archives, where she remained for twelve years cataloguing the letters of Archbishop Daniel Murray (qv) and Archdeacon John Hamilton (d. 1862). These two calendars were serialised in Archivium Hibernicum, beginning in 1981. She was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice by Pope John XXIII in 1961, and was the third recipient (and first woman recipient) of an honorary doctorate of philosophy from the Pontifical University of Maynooth on 14 November 1989. She died on 19 March 1991 in Dublin, aged 84. Her brother, Patrick (Pádraig) Purcell (qv), was a sports journalist and novelist.