Irish child star of the 1930s
Obituary Eileen Purcell: Stage star and dedicated mother
When Noel died in 1985, Eileen was heartbroken. “I had such a wonderful life with him,” she said.
January 21st, 1918 – August 19th, 2018
Eileen Purcell (nee Marmion), the Irish child star of the 1930s, has died at the age of 101.
Deemed to be the last survivor of her generation of variety actors and music hall performers, her passing is a poignant reminder of the glory days of the Theatre Royal on Hawkins St, Dublin. Often billed as “Little Eileen Marmion”, she exuded confidence, sparkle and poise in her performances which brought joy to audiences in Ireland and the UK.
Eileen was encouraged to be an actress from an early age by her mother who raised her on her own, following the premature death of her husband from injuries in first World War. An only child, Eileen grew up in Dublin’s North King St and attended the Aileen Lennox Magee Stage School. Her talent was spotted by the variety performer and producer, Jimmy O’Dea who cast her – at the age of 10 – as a teddy bear in Sinbad the Sailor.
Eileen went on to top the billings in revues performed in theatres across Ireland and the UK, often singing and dancing her own compositions. It was the heyday of light entertainment when audiences dressed in their finest and went to the theatre to laugh and be joyful. On tour, Eileen was accompanied by her mother and went to school in the towns and cities in which she performed.
In 1930, at the age of 12, during rehearsals for Little Red Riding Hood, she was introduced to the comedian, Noel Purcell. Purcell was playing Dame Longshanks, her grandmother. They became great friends and Noel used to laugh about going on dates to “the pictures” with other women, with Eileen trotting along beside him. They eventually fell in love and married in 1941.
Eileen retired from the stage when their first of four sons, Michael was born in May, 1942. Her mother helped her rear them – while Noel Purcell became a rising star in plays, pantomimes, films and eventually television.
The Purcell home was a lively one. Their son, Patrick – who now lives in Australia – says that he will always remember his mother playing the piano in the parlour in Sandymount and singing the old music hall songs. He also recalls when the Hamburg State Opera principal singers were brought home by his father for a home-cooked meal. “He had forgotten to mention it to Mum! Anyway, we managed and they sang their party pieces. Mum apologised the next day for the noise and the lateness, but the neighbours only said: “Next time, please open the windows so we can hear better. They were lovely!”
Over the years, Eileen and Noel did a lot of charity work, mainly for the Variety Club charities. All of their sons showed talent in the media and entertainment world. Mike Purcell was a floor manager at RTÉ, then an assistant director on the British TV series The Bill for many years. Glynn Purcell was an assistant film director at Pinewood Studios in England and assistant director on The Bill. Patrick who is a retired IT change manager now living in Melbourne, acted in TV commercials and minor roles in Australian television. Victor Purcell was a cameraman on commercials, films including Braveheart, and an award-winning documentary maker.
When Noel died in 1985, Eileen was heartbroken. “I had such a wonderful life with him,” she said in a RTÉ television tribute to Noel Purcell years later. After his death, she moved to an apartment in Sandymount and later to St Mary’s nursing home in Merrion Road. Sadly, Eileen developed dementia towards the end of her life but the nursing staff said they knew she had been a dancer because her feet were always tapping in tune to the music they played in the nursing home.
Eileen Purcell is survived by two of her sons, Glynn and Patrick, their respective wives, Elizabeth and Oonagh, grandchildren, Zarah, Tiffany and Tom and her great granddaughters Phoebe and Emma. Her husband, the actor, Noel Purcell pre-deceased her in 1985, as did her sons, Michael (in 2015) and Victor (in 2014).