Maurice MacGonigal was the son of a painter and decorator from Sligo. He served as an apprentice to his uncle, the designer and stained glass artist Joshua Clarke, before attending the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art from 1923 to 1926. In 1932 he took up a teaching position in the same school. In 1931 he became an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy and in 1933 he was appointed a full member. He was President of the Academy from 1962 to 1977.
Along with Sean Keating, McGonigal is considered one of the pioneers of the Irish National Realist School. During World War I, McGonigal subscribed to a general censorship which refused to acknowledge the atrocities of the war and the ensuing unrest in Europe. Determined to cast a positive light over post-independence Ireland, he abandoned social-realist themes addressed in his earlier work ( The Dockers, 1933-1934) for idealised evocations of social solidarity in Ireland's rural community. In Bean Agus a Naoidheanan (1942), a robust mother seated with her well-nourished child in a coastal landscape recalls Raphael's Madonna of the Meadow.