Padraic Colum wrote his first play when he was nineteen and his last when he was eighty-five. In all, he wrote about two dozen plays of varying lengths, many in several different versions. His plays have been produced at the Abbey and Gate theaters in Dublin, on Broadway by David Belasco and Iden Payne, Off-Broadway, at the Dublin Theatre Festival, on Irish television, in the little theaters that flourished in Dublin in the 1960’s, and by amateur groups in Ireland, England, the United States, the Middle East, and Australia.
There was little in Colum’s family background to suggest a career as a playwright. Unlike William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Lady Augusta Gregory, and most of the other playwrights of the Irish Literary Renaissance with whom he became associated, his background was rural, Catholic, and working-class. His mother was the daughter of a gardener, and his father the son of a tenant farmer. Colum’s father seems to have been temperamentally unsuited to handle the responsibilities of a growing family and, according to Colum, “was always unlucky looking for jobs.” He worked first as a teacher in a national school and later taught the children of paupers at Longford Workhouse in the Irish midlands; he eventually became master of the workhouse but had to resign the position because of his drinking and mishandling of funds. He left Ireland for a few years to work at various jobs in the United States but returned when Colum was nine and moved the family to Sandycove outside Dublin, where he had found a job as a clerk in the railway station. Padraic entered the local national school, though his attendance became irregular when he was old enough to take a part-time job. He and his brother Fred worked as delivery boys for the railroad and took turns attending school, one going one day, the other the next. When he was seventeen, Colum left school after passing his examinations and began work as a clerk at the Railway Clearing House on Kildare Street in Dublin.
Colum soon became interested in drama, though all he knew about plays and playwriting was what he had learned from the national school curriculum, from books he found in the local library, and from rare visits to the theater in Dublin, where the fare tended to be a mixture of music-hall variety shows and popular English comedies. He recalled later that when he began writing his first play, he “knew nothing whatever about the theatre. I had seen [Dion Boucicault’s] The Colleen Bawn, The Shaughraun, and some shows put on by amateurs, and I had gone to the Gaiety Theatre, and spent a whole shilling for a seat in the pit . . . to see Mr. and Mrs. Kendall in a play called The Elder Miss Blossom.” This was in 1899, and there was as yet no such thing as a native Irish drama, apart from the melodramas of Dion Boucicault. The Abbey Theatre, which would provide models for the next generation of playwrights, was still six years from being founded, and the Irish Literary Theatre, which Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Edward Martyn had established with the aim of creating a native drama, was only in its first year of production. Colum saw none of the Irish Literary Theatre’s plays that year and, in fact, saw none of its subsequent productions except the final one on October 21, 1901. This was a double bill featuring Diarmuid and Grania by Yeats and George Moore and Casad-an-Sugan (The Twisting of the Rope), Douglas Hyde’s play in Irish.
Colum’s first effort at playwriting was, instead, a result of his attendance at the tableaux vivants that the patriotic Daughters of Ireland were staging to promote nationalistic sentiment. “They were statuesque groups introduced by some familiar piece of music, and holding their pose for some minutes—an elementary show in which costume, music and striking appearance were ingredients,” Colum later wrote. “I was in an audience that witnessed ‘Silent, O Moyle, Be the Roar of Thy Waters.’ I felt there should be words to give life to the pathos of children transformed by an enchantress stepmother; my mind was already on plays. I began a one act play in verse, The Children of Lir, and sent it to [the Daughters of Ireland].” Although they did not produce the play, Colum succeeded in getting it published in The Irish Independent on September 14, 1901. It was his first published work. During the next three years—what Colum called his apprentice period—he published several more one-act plays, including plays based on Irish history and mythology, Ibsen-like problem plays, a dramatic monologue, and a melodramatic propaganda play, written to discourage enlistments in the British Army. As might be expected, these early plays are, for the most part, awkward and immature, and Colum made no later effort to revise or republish them. They do, however, show a precocious grasp of dramatic techniques and a rapidly developing skill.
Colum’s full-length play Broken Soil was produced by the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903, the same year it produced the first plays of Synge and Lady Gregory. Almost immediately Colum was recognized as a playwright of great promise and sound dramatic judgment. When he was only twenty-three, he was selected by the National Theatre Society to be a member of its first reading committee, a role he shared with Yeats and Æ. Yeats was particularly impressed by Colum’s work, describing him in 1904 as “a man of genius in the first dark gropings of his thought” and noting that “some here think he will become our strongest dramatic talent.” Colum’s plays and poems also won for him the patronage of Thomas Hughes Kelly, an American millionaire living near Dublin, who awarded him a five-year grant—beginning at seventy pounds and increasing by ten pounds per year—to support his literary work. With this subsidy, Colum was able to quit his job as a railway clerk in 1904 and devote his full time to writing. He quickly developed into an accomplished playwright, and the popularity of his next play, The Land, helped to confirm Yeats’s prediction. Produced in 1905 after the Irish National Theatre Society was reorganized as the Abbey Theatre, it gave the Abbey what it much needed when many were criticizing it for being something less than the national theater it purported to be—a play that was both a critical and a popular success. Irish and English critics hailed it as “the best play yet given us by the dramatic movement” and “one of the most important plays which have appeared in English for a long time.” Although this praise was perhaps extravagant, the play did add a new dimension to the dramatic movement. As one reviewer explained: “What we have been waiting for is a play that should be...