BORN: 1881, County Longford, Ireland
DIED: 1972, Enfield, Conn.
GENRE: Poetry, drama
The Land (1905)
Wild Earth: A Book of Verse (1907)
Thomas Muskerry (1910)
Dramatic Legends, and Other Poems (1922)
The Poet’s Circuits: Collected Poems of Ireland (1960)
Padraic Colum. Colum, Padraic, photograph. AP Images.
Padraic Colum was a major figure in Ireland’s Literary Revival period in the early twentieth century. it was Colum—writing out of his childhood experience of life in the midlands of Ireland—who most accurately expressed the sensibility of the irish peasant that larger figures like W. B. Yeats and John M. Synge saw as the bedrock of a new literature for Ireland.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Unstable Early Years. The oldest of the eight children of Patrick and Susan MacCormack Collumb, Colum (as he spelled his name later) was born on December 8, 1881, in a County Longford workhouse, where his father was master. At the time, Ireland was still under British rule. Poverty and hunger remained widespread among the Irish in the decades after the devastating effects of the potato famine of the 1840s, while their British landlords and rulers controlled the land and continued to export crops to England. In 1889, his father, in an effort to improve the family fortunes, left the family for the United States, to participate in the Colorado gold rush. After the great famine, many Irish immigrated to America to seek a better life and economic prosperity. Colorado was a destination for people desiring to find a fortune in gold, silver, and lead, and mining towns were common throughout the state in the late nineteenth century.
When Patrick Collumb went to America, the children went to live with a grandmother and her family in a rural area of neighboring County Cavan. Here, Colum experienced the life of the Irish countryside that later figured in his best work. He came under the influence of an uncle, Micky Burns, who traveled through the country with Colum in tow, buying fowl to sell for export. Burns passed the time by using his inexhaustible store of local ballads and legends to entertain the young Colum.
Life in Dublin Sparks Literary Career. When Colum’s father returned in 1890, he took a job as a railway stationmaster, and the family moved to Sandy Cove, just south of Dublin. Padraic attended the Glasthule National School in Sandy Cove until he was seventeen and worked with his brother delivering parcels for the railway. In 1898, he took a job as a clerk in the Irish Railway Clearing House in Dublin. Colum also began writing in his spare time and frequenting the various literary circles in Dublin.
It was an exhilarating time to be in Dublin, especially for a young man interested in literature, for several reasons. The effort to establish an Irish theater was underway. New literary and political periodicals were springing up as many Irish continued to seek home rule, if not outright independence from Great Britain. An interest in Gaelic literature (Gaelic is the native language of Ireland) and folk traditions was being kindled through various groups. Writers such as Yeats, George Russell, and George Moore were gathering to discuss the possibilities for a new kind of Irish literature.
Early Poems and Plays Emphasize Rural Life. Colum saw several of his poems published in the new United Irishman, run by his friend Arthur Griffith, later the leader of Sinn Fein. Some of these poems—including ‘‘A Drover’’ and another of Colum’s best-known lyrics, ‘‘A Poor Scholar of the Forties’’—attracted the attention of Yeats, who came to be an important friend and mentor to Colum.
Although it was Colum’s poetry that first attracted Yeats’s eye, it was Colum’s interest in the theater that eventually placed him in the center of the literary revival. Through his membership in Cumann na nGaedeal, a nationalist group that undertook to produce patriotic plays, Colum met, in 1901, Willie and Frank Fay, the amateur actors who later played a significant part in the success of the Abbey Theatre. Colum became an active member ofthe Fays’ dramatic group, writing several plays and even acting in a few productions. In the next few years, Colum wrote several successful plays that, like his poetry, reflect his vision of rural and provincial Irish life.
By his description, Colum was determined to write poetry that was anchored ‘‘close to the ground.’’ Nowhere is this effort more evident—or more successful— than in his first volume of poems, Wild Earth: A Book of Verse, published in 1907 and revised and augmented in 1916 as Wild Earth, and Other Poems. This work demonstrates as well how his early poetry stands at the opposite end of the poetic spectrum; opposite the deliberately mythic and symbolic poetry that Yeats was writing early in his career.
Radical Changes in Personal Life. Between the first publication of Wild Earth in 1907 and the publication of the expanded version in 1916, Colum’s life changed radically. In 1912, he married Mary Catherine Gunning Maguire, a young university graduate who later had a distinguished career as a literary critic. In the same time period, there were startling changes in the political life of Ireland as well, and Colum was very much caught up in these. He joined the Irish Volunteers, a militant nationalist group led partly by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and took part in a bloody gunrunning episode at Howth, near Dublin, in July 1914. The Brotherhood was a secret nationalist society that wanted Ireland to become an independent republic and used violence to help achieve its goal. Shortly after the gunrunning incident, Colum and Mary accepted a longstanding invitation to visit Colum’s aunt in Pittsburgh. What was planned as a visit of a few months turned out to be lifelong residence in the United States. Consequently, Colum was not present during the Easter Rising of 1916. During the Easter Rising, the Volunteers’ poorly coordinated attempt to seize and control a government building in Dublin went awry and led to five days of bloody fighting in the streets between Irish insurgents and the British forces sent to quell the rebellion.
In Pittsburgh, Colum was offered the chance to give some lectures on Irish literature, and later he received other offers for similar appearances in New York. It soon became clear—partly because World War I was drying up most of Colum’s potential sources of income from writing for British periodicals—that economic survival for the Colums depended on their staying in the United States; so they stayed. Meanwhile, World War I raged through Europe, leaving 10 million soldiers dead, including many Irish soldiers who fought alongside British forces. The war had begun in 1914 and had ground to a bloody stalemate on the Western front by 1916. The United States abandoned its isolationist stance in 1917, entering the war and tipping the scales in favor of the Allied forces of France, England, and Russia. The war ended in 1919.
A Growing Reputation. Colum’s next collection of poetry, Dramatic Legends, and Other Poems, appeared in 1922. The book contains some new poems in the vein of the peasant poetry of Wild Earth and a considerable number of love lyrics, including several that demonstrate Colum’s connection with the Gaelic tradition of love poetry dealing with loss.
During his early years in the United States, Colum’s American reputation flourished, especially as a writer of prose. Partly to meet economic needs, Colum wrote Irish folk stories for children, and the result, The King of Ireland’s Son, published in 1916, marked the first of many such collections in Colum’s career. In 1923, his first novel appeared, Castle Conquer. Like his early plays, it deals with rural Ireland, specifically with the land war of the 1880s fought on behalf of poor tenant farmers by the Irish Land League. The group sought fair rents as well as ownership of the land for those who worked it. In 1923, Colum and his wife traveled to Hawaii at the invitation of the Hawaiian legislature, to collect a volume of authentic Polynesian folk poems, stories, and legends. The Hawaiian venture produced two books, published in 1924 and 1925. In 1926, Colum produced a group of essays about Ireland and another collection of similar pieces, CrossRoads in Ireland, that appeared four years later.
Assisting Joyce. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Colums lived first in New Canaan, Connecticut, and then settled in New York City. During several visits to Paris in these years, Colum renewed and deepened his earlier friendship with James Joyce, also an Irish-born author. In those early years, Colum had helped raise money for Joyce to try to get Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) published in Ireland. He continued to help Joyce however he could, including offering his knowledge of Irish history and topography, which proved of great assistance to Joyce in the latter’s work on Finnegans Wake (1939). Colum and his wife later collaborated on a book on Joyce, Our Friend James Joyce (1958).
The last thirty years of Colum’s life offer little evidence to counter the argument that the best of his poetry was written early in his career, but Colum remained productive. He and Mary both began teaching at Columbia University in 1939, and Colum continued to lecture widely in the United States and to write children’s stories and folktales. His second novel, The Flying Swans, appeared in 1957.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Colum wrote five plays based on the tradition of Japanese Noh drama that Yeats had drawn on earlier. Two more volumes of poetry came out in 1953 and 1954, The Collected Poems of Padraic Colum and The Vegetable Kingdom, respectively. It was not until 1960 that the most important volume of poetry in this final period of Colum’s career was published. The Poet’s Circuits: Collected Poems of Ireland collects poems from his earlier books but presents them as part of a larger vision of the Irish poet. A contract for children’s literature with Macmillan Publishers set Colum up financially for the remainder of his life. He divided his later years between the United States and Ireland and died in Enfield, Connecticut, in 1972 at age ninety.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Colum's famous contemporaries include:
Josephine Baker (1906-1975): African-American entertainer and singer who found fame on the Parisian stage in the 1920s. She was later a Civil Rights activist in the United States.
Bela BartOk (1881-1945): The preeminent Hungarian pianist and composer, recognized as one of the most significant musicians of the twentieth century and remembered for his cofounding of the field of ethnomusicology.
William Faulkner (1897-1962): American author considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Faulkner was known for his experimental style and his complex explorations of the culture of the Deep South.
Eamon de Valera (1882-1975): A leader of the Irish Easter Rising, and later President of Ireland.
Works in Literary Context
Influences. Colum’s most successful plays—including The Land (1905), The Fiddler’s House (1905), and Thomas Muskerry (1910)—are marked by a directness of style and a realistic vision that identify him as a writer of peasant dramas. These plays also locate him at the opposite end from John W. Synge, Lady Gregory, and Yeats on the spectrum of peasant drama.
Irish Themes. Colum’s early poetry also shares his commitment to realism and to the life of rural Ireland. Much of the atmosphere in Colum’s poetry stems from his acquaintance with the Gaelic tradition and his admiration for several nineteenth-century Irish poets, especially James Clarence Mangan and Samuel Ferguson, who worked to incorporate into English verse the intricate sound patterns and rhythms of Gaelic poetry, something very different from the metered norm of the English tradition. This tendency can be seen in poems such as ‘‘A Drover.’’
Irish traditions flow through most of Colum’s work. In Dramatic Legends, a second theme of loss is given Irish dimensions, especially in a group of poems titled Reminiscence, that documents the passing away of old traditions and ways of life in rural Ireland. The Poet’s Circuits: Collected Poems ofIreland, a long, mostly blank verse poem that introduces the volume, details the growth of a poet’s mind, in this instance of an Irish poet’s mind, and insists on the relationship between the Irish poet and the land and its traditions.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who, like Colum, also wrote in the style of realism on themes involving their homelands:
A Book of Saints and Wonders (1901), a collection of folktales by Lady Gregory. In this volume, the author shapes stories based on those told to her at Ireland's Gort workhouse.
Death of a Naturalist (1966), a poetry collection by Seamus Heaney. In this volume the poet depicts childhood, reflects on identity, and describes the setting of rural Ireland.
Dubliners (1914), a short-story collection by James Joyce. In this volume, the author explores members of the middle class in early twentieth-century Ireland.
The Playboy of the Western World (1907), a play by John M. Synge. In this three-act drama set in an illicit bar in Ireland, Christy Mahon is on the run—claiming to have murdered his father.
Works in Critical Context
The poetry that Colum produced during the 1920s and 1930s is, on the whole, considered unimpressive. But later and earlier work has been honored by scholars and critics alike. His early poems were often called works of genius by his contemporaries. One example of an important lauded early work was the collection Wild Earth.
Wild Earth (1907). A number of the poems in Wild Earth are translations of Gaelic poems or restorations of traditional Irish songs, and some of the best of these are love lyrics. An early critic of Wild Earth, Mary C. Sturgeon, linked the work of Colum with that of another Irish poet deeply committed to the native peasant tradition, Joseph Campbell. Sturgeon argued that in the poetry of Colum and Campbell one can distinguish ‘‘the almost subconscious influence of race. Whether from inheritance or environment, it has ‘bred true’ in these poets; and it will be found to pervade their work like an atmosphere.’’
Responses to Literature
1. If anything influenced Colum very early on, it might have been his father’s leaving to participate in the Colorado gold rush—to make money for the family. Investigate the circumstances of the Colorado gold rush (also known as Pike’s Peak gold rush). How many people, and what types of people, participated in it? Regardless ofwhether Colum’s father was successful or not, how would this event have affected the young boy?
2. In his writing, Colum has a commitment to Irish folk tradition. Research Irish folk mythology or history to get a deeper sense of the people of Colum’s writings and find paintings of traditional folk culture (such as Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters ). As you look over the works of art, choose one you believe would best go with a Colum poem and share your reasons for your choice.
3. Besides being committed to Irish folk tradition, Colum maintained a faith in humanity in general. This is evident in many of his portrait poems. Choose a person to write about, someone who inspires your faith. Write a portrait poem. Include physical characteristics of the person, special features, bits of dialogue, or actions of the person to show your readers the greatness of this person.
Bowen, Zack. Padraic Colum: A Biographical-Critical Introduction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.
Boyd, Ernest. The Contemporary Drama of Ireland. Dublin: Talbot Press, 1918.
________. Ireland’s Literary Renaissance. Rev. ed. New York: Knopf, 1922.
Colum, Mary. Life and the Dream. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1947.
Loftus, Richard J. Nationalism in Modern Anglo-Irish Poetry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.
Sturgeon, Mary C. Studies of Contemporary Poets. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1916.
Denson, Alan. ‘‘Padraic Colum: An Appreciation, with a Check-List of His Publications.’’ Dublin Magazine 6 (Spring 1967): 50-67.
Leen, Brendan, and Cregan Library. Padraic Colum. Retrieved March 14, 2008, from http://services.spd.dcu.ie/library/LIBeng/Special%20Collections/ spcollpcollum.htm.
Project Gutenberg. Colum, Padraic (1881-1972). Retrieved March 14, 2008, from http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/c#a893. University of Delaware Library Special Collections Department. Padraic Colum Papers. Retrieved March 14, 2008, from http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/findaids/colum.htm.