Padraic Colum: Irish Writer

The King of Ireland's Son Padraic Colum, 1881-1972 was an Irish poet, playwright, novelist, biographer and short story writer whose life, both human and literary, was long. He left a legacy of goodness of mind and heart as well as an excellent body of work in a wide range of genres. In Padraic Colum, an Appreciation and a checklist of his publications Alen Denson quotes AE (George Russell), "You are always kind. You are as good as you were when you were young, which is saying a great deal about anybody..."

Born in County Longford to a Catholic family, Colum spent much time in his youth in the rural countryside of Longford and Cavan. As a young man he lived and worked in Dublin. At the Glasthule National School he was influenced by schoolmaster Denis Condon who was very interested in poetry. Colum developed a great respect for tradition and the ability to learn and recite many poems by heart.

The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes dedication page The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes dedication page

After graduating from school Colum earned a position with the Irish Railway Clearing House on Kildare Street in Dublin. Although he worked long hours he continued to write poems and plays. In Dublin he had the opportunity to meet many literary figures who were leaders of the Irish Literary Revival. These included William Butler Yeats, George William Russell (AE), Lady Gregory and others.

At Lady Gregory's home Colum had the good fortune to meet a wealthy American, Thomas Hughes Kelly, son of American banker Eugene Kelly. Kelly established a number of scholarships for deserving Irish writers and scholars and deciding that Colum was a good candidate paid for a five-year period of study and writing for him. Colum would receive the amount of his salary plus a yearly increase for the five years. He left his job and produced a wealth of articles, plays and poems during this time.

Colum joined the Gaelic League and became a champion of the Irish nationalist cause. Arthur Griffith who founded and ran the United Irishman newspaper became a patron to Colum and published early poems and one-act plays in his newspaper.

While researching in the National Library in Dublin he met James Joyce and a life-long friendship began. In 1914 Colum married Mary Gunning Maguire, a graduate of University College, Dublin, who also had a strong interest in all things literary, including original writing and literary criticism. With Colum and several others she formed the journal, The Literary Review. In 1958 Mary and Padraic Colum wrote a biography of James Joyce, Our Friend James Joyce.

The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes, inside page

Together with Anglo-Irish colleagues who made a study of the language, literature and folklore of Ireland Colum shared the ideal of raising Irish culture to what they believed to be its rightful high place among the cultures of the world. Unlike most of these colleagues, however, he possessed an inherent treasure of each genre upon which he drew. Colum at a very early age spent time listening to stories told by his grandmother in whose home he learned local history through the exchanges between her and the local seanchaí (storyteller). This storyteller spent hours sharing traditional stories and legends which later shaped much of Colum's work. Another relative with whom he had close contact, his aunt's husband, Mickey Burns, allowed the young Colum to accompany him as he bought fowl from locals and sold them for export. Burns was a treasure-trove of legends and ballads. This added to a great store from which Colum would draw in many future writings.

The King of Ireland's Son The King of Ireland's Son

The colonial, in many cases feudal, environment in which Colum grew up also played a major role in shaping his writing. At this time much of the land resided in the hands of wealthy Anglo-Irish families. Colum witnessed at first hand the effects of poverty and homelessness as he lived until about the age of eight in a workhouse in Longford where his father was school master. Memories of this life show up in an early play, The Workhouse Master, which was ultimately produced under the title of Thomas Muskerry. The topic of land reform and the resulting ability of tenants to purchase lots previously owned by landlords feature prominently in his play The Land, one of the Abbey Theatre's first successful plays.

Colum had been a member of the National Theatre Society and a charter member of the Abbey Theatre. Conflicts regarding creative control and organization arose among members of the theatre and Colum quit after his last play Thomas Muskerry closed in 1910.

After this falling out, Colum returned to writing poetry. Remarkable for its rich, clear and lyrical nature, his verse echoes early Irish poetry. Speakers in the collection, Wild Earth, represent people in rural Ireland. One poem, "She Moved through the Fair," is noted as a successful recreation of a folksong and is even today played and sung in Ireland and the United States. A search of YouTube will retrieve clips from singers that cross ages, geographic locations, and styles. One is this hauntingly beautiful rendition by Loreena McKennitt. Another poem, "An Old Woman of the Roads" proved to be very popular and the words touchingly evoke a character that Colum may have come to know as a young boy in an Ireland that suffered economic hardship in which evictions were all too prevalent among tenants in rural areas. Click here to access an audio file from Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries and hear Padraic Colum reading this and other poems.

Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said

In 1914 Colum left Ireland with Mary and moved to the United States where he remained for most of his life. He produced more dramatic works, poetry collections, biographies and novels, some for children. It is impossible in this brief article to do justice to the many works in the many different genres. A fine list of Colum's works can be found in the Alan Denson piece on Colum in the Dublin Magazine issue cited below.

His books for children are particularly interesting and enjoyable, for both the textual content, which includes Greek myths, Hawaiian and Irish legends, as well as for the beautiful illustrations. Many of these books came out of a long collaboration with the Macmillan Company of New York and illustrators working for this company. Especially fascinating is that several of the illustrators with whom he collaborated were immigrants and, like Colum, had come from countries, such as Russia and Hungary, which had suffered severe revolutionary upheaval. The Hungarian born Willy Pogány met Colum and expressed an interest in doing an Irish book. This resulted in The King of Ireland's Son, a book of stories which reflected the stories he had heard by his grandmother's fireside back in County Cavan. Colum had translated some of the stories from the Irish.

Both the O'Neill and the John J. Burns Libraries hold many titles by Padraic Colum. Several of his books for children and of his poetry collections are available as e-books through the Internet Archive.

In its manuscripts collection the Burns Library holds typescripts for two of Colum's short plays: Timbukto a Comedy in Three Acts and Kilmore.

The above illustrations are taken from the following books:

Colum, Padraic. The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said (illustrated by Dugald Stewart Walker). New York: The Macmillan Company, 1918.

Colum, Padraic. The King of Ireland's Son (illustrated by Willy Pogány). New York: The Macmillan Company, 1926.

Colum, Padraic. The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes (illustrated by Dugald Stewart Walker). New York: The Macmillan Company 1919.

Colum, Padraic. The Peep Show Man (illustrated by Lois Lenski). New York: Macmillan, 1942.

Sources Used:

Bowen, Zack R. and Harry Thornton Moore. Padraic Colum: A Biographical-critical Introduction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.

Bowen, Zack and Gordon Henderson (eds.). Journal of Irish Literature, 2, no. 1 (January 1973): "A Padraic Colum number".

Bowen, Zack. "Ninety Years in Retrospect: Excerpts from Interviews with Padraic Colum." Journal of Irish Literature 2, no. 1 (January 1973): 14-34.

Colum, Padraic. "Vagrant Voices: A Self-Portrait." Journal of Irish Literature 2, no. 1 (January 1973): 63-75.

Denson, Alan. "Padraic Colum: An Appreciation, With a Check-list of His Publications." Dublin Magazine, vi, no. 1 (spring 1967), 50–67.

Kinsella, Michael A. "Padraic Colum." The Dictionary of Irish Biography. online

Patrick Colum: typescripts and letter, 1927-1966. Burns Archives Reading Room Use Only (MS2000-013)

Sternlicht, Sanford. Padraic Colum. Boston: Twayne Publishers, c.1985.

Kathy Williams
Senior Reference Librarian/Bibliographer
Burns Library