Padraic Colum

The Irish-American author Padraic Colum (1881-1972), best known for his poetry and plays, was active in the Irish Literary Revival.

Padraic Colum was born in County Longford and as a youth met many who had lived through the Great Famine, which ravaged Ireland in the mid-19th century. His father was master of the workhouse (home for the destitute), and thus Padraic saw much of the poverty and land hunger of the people. His uncle was a poultry dealer, and the young Colum traveled with him to fairs and markets. There he met the wandering people of the roads, ballad singers, and storytellers and found inspiration for some of the poems which have become part of Ireland's literary heritage. "She Moves through the Fair" and "The Old Woman of the Roads" are among his numerous simple lyrics which have often been anthologized.

Colum became deeply interested in poetry and theater, and he brought to the great Irish Literary Revival a young man's vision together with an inheritance from the ancient voice of the people. He was one of the founders of the Irish Review, and his early poems were published by Arthur Griffith, of whom he later wrote a biography (Ourselves Alone, 1959). Among his volumes of poetry were The Road Round Ireland (1926) and Images of Departure (1969). His collected poems were published in 1953.

Colum was a founder-member of the Irish National Theatre Society (forerunner of the Abbey Theatre) and a friend of William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Lady Gregory, AE, and James Stephens. He later celebrated some of these friendships in a book of poems, Irish Elegies (1958). His realistic plays—The Land (1905), The Fiddler's House (1907), and Thomas Muskerry (1910)—were an important influence in the development of the modern Irish theater. Their early productions were by the Fay brothers, and it was Frank Fay who taught Colum how to recite verse, an art which he perfected over the years.

Colum was much occupied with contemporary events, especially Ireland's struggle for freedom, and numbered among his friends the Irish patriots Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonagh, and Roger Casement. In 1912 Colum married the author Mary Maguire, and 2 years later they emigrated to the United States. He retained close ties, however, with literary and political events in Ireland, and his writings continued to derive much of their inspiration from his native country.

The Colums wrote about their long and close friendship with James Joyce and his family many years later in Our Friend James Joyce (1958). They cared for Joyce's invalid daughter at a critical period. Colum's fondness for young people is also reflected in his many books for children, best known of which is The King of Ireland's Son (1916).

Although a resident of New York, Colum remained something of the traditional wandering Irish poet, traveling widely to give lectures and readings. In 1924 he accepted an invitation from the Hawaii Legislature to make a survey of native myth and folklore; his versions of the Hawaiian tales were published in The Bright Islands (1925). He also retold Irish legends in A Treasury of Irish Folklore (1954). Colum was always interested in other cultures, from those of classical Greece and Rome to that of the South Sea Islands, which he visited at the age of 86.

After his wife's death in 1957, Colum published the long, semiautobiographical novel The Flying Swans, a saga of life in Ireland before the turn of the century. Colum's unfailing kindness in encouraging new poets and writers of talent perhaps contributed to his vitality and the continuing freshness of his ideas throughout his life. He died at Enfield, Conn., on Jan. 11, 1972.


Further Reading on Padraic Colum

A comprehensive biographical and critical study of Colum is Zack Bowen, Padraic Colum (1970). The autobiography of his wife, Mary Colum, Life and the Dream: Memories of a Literary Life in Europe and America (1947; rev. ed. 1966), contains information about their life together. Ernest A. Boyd, The Contemporary Drama of Ireland (1917), discusses Colum's early career as an Irish folk dramatist.