Mary Lavin is closely associated with Ireland, her primary home and fictional setting, yet she was born in East Walpole, Massachusetts, on June 11, 1912, and lived there until she was nearly ten years old. Her father, Tom Lavin, was a County Roscommon native of great strength and vitality but with little formal education who worked as a groom and caretaker for a wealthy Massachusetts family. Her mother, Nora Mahon, a lovely middle-class Galway woman, was the second oldest in a family of twelve children, and she was sent to visit her cousin in America partly in the hope that she would marry and thus ease the family’s financial pressures. Discovering that she disliked America, Nora returned to Ireland, meeting her future husband on the boat. After several years of courtship conducted largely through Tom’s ardent correspondence, Nora returned to America and married him, apparently more out of filial duty than love, and in spite of her lack of enthusiasm for her new home and her husband’s working-class status.
Nora was determined to return to Ireland, and in 1921 she left Massachusetts for her grandparents’ home in Athenry, accompanied by nine-year-old Mary, who attended a local school. The eight months she spent in this Irish village had a great influence on Lavin’s life and work; she told Zack Bowen, “For years whenever I wrote a story, no matter what gave me the idea, I had to recast it in terms of the people of that town” (Bowen, p. 18). A year later Tom Lavin joined them in Dublin, but he soon moved to Bective to manage property owned by his Massachusetts employers. In Dublin Mary enrolled in the Loreto convent, where she excelled in English, catechism, and debating. She then attended University College, Dublin, where she took first honors in English and continued on to write a first-class master’s degree thesis on Jane Austen. Lavin then returned to the Loreto convent to teach French as she worked toward her Ph.D. in literature.