Mary Coughlan was born in May 1965 in Inver, County Donegal. She was the eldest of seven, with five brothers and a sister.
Mary lived what she described as ‘a country life’. Her mother was at home and her father was a school teacher. Her mother had been a hotelier but she gave up work when Mary was small.
Mary was educated in the Ursuline Convent, Sligo and later at University College Dublin where she graduated with a Bachelor of Social Science, before qualifying as a social worker.
‘We were part of the community. My father was a big community activist.’ Her family were Fianna Fáil and her Uncle Clem was a T.D.. Mary's earliest memories were of the 1980 election when he was elected to the Dáil.
In a 2008 interview, she told Mary Banotti that it was then that the whole family became involved in national politics, and that she and her siblings were involved, but that they were ‘probably more of a hindrance than a help.’
When Clem was killed in a car crash, her father, Cathal won the by-election and became a T.D. for Donegal South West. Cathal served just 3 years as a TD, he died from cancer in June 1986, he was 48 years old.