Padraic Colum was born in a workhouse in Ireland’s County Longford on December 8, 1881. His original name was Patrick Columb, but in his early twenties, he changed his name to Padraic Colum to make it sound more Irish and less English. He was the first of eight children born to Susan and Patrick Columb. During his youth, he learned about Irish folklore and traditions by listening to the oral tales told by those who lived in County Longford. He never wavered in his commitment both to the Catholic faith of his ancestors and to the values of Irish peasant culture. His formal education ended when he was sixteen, and he was in many ways a self-educated man.
His family moved to Dublin in 1891, and after his studies ended, Colum became a clerk for the Irish railroads. He soon developed a deep interest in Gaelic culture and discovered his abilities as a writer. With the encouragement of Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, he wrote plays for the newly founded Abbey Theatre in Dublin as well as lyric poetry. A monetary grant in 1908 from American businessman Thomas Kelly enabled Colum to resign from his job with the railroads and to concentrate solely on his writing. From then on, Colum earned his living as a writer. He married Mary Maguire in 1912, and they moved to the United States two years later.
While in the United States, the Colums often wrote together. They were popular lecturers and visiting professors at various American universities, especially at Columbia University, where they taught literature for many years. They spent most of their time in New York City, but they traveled frequently. Although they had no children, Colum earned his living largely by retelling folktales for children. These books were enormously popular. In 1924, the provincial legislature in Hawaii decided to preserve traditional Hawaiian folktales, and it decided that Colum was the most qualified person to undertake this project. The Colums spent two years in Hawaii, where Padraic learned Hawaiian and became so erudite in Hawaiian culture that he gave numerous lectures on Hawaiian history and culture in Honolulu’s Bishop Museum.
During his nearly six decades in the United States, Colum remained a prolific writer. He was a humble man who preferred speaking about his wife and their numerous fellow writers, especially their close friend James Joyce, to talking about himself. One year after Mary’s death in 1957, Colum completed a biography the two of them had been writing of Joyce, which he titled Our Friend James Joyce. At that time Colum began receiving care from his nephew Emmet Greene, who assisted him in his many trips around the New York area. Although Colum never wrote an autobiography, American scholar Zack Bowen recorded a series of interviews with him in the 1960’s. In the interviews, Colum spoke extensively of his literary career. Bowen relied on these interviews for his 1970 biography of Colum, and he donated these tapes to the library of the State University of New York, Binghamton, which houses Colum’s papers. Colum died in a nursing home in Connecticut on January 11, 1972. His body was flown to Ireland, where he was buried next to his beloved Mary.
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