Padraic Colum Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

In nineteenth century British and American plays, a common character type was the “stage Irishman.” This artificial Irish character was not very bright or sensitive. He tended to be a buffoon whose major interest in life was drinking. These plays revealed no understanding of the harsh reality of colonial rule and economic exploitation in rural Ireland. Until the very end of the nineteenth century, Catholics could not own land in Ireland, and farmers were forced to pay rent to absentee landlords. A desire for stability and a profound love of the land were deeply felt by Irish peasants. Padraic Colum expressed their feelings in a poetic voice that was authentic.

“An Old Woman of the Roads”

Colum’s 1907 book Wild Earth includes some of his most admired poems. The very title suggests that generations of Irish peasants had resisted British efforts to suppress their culture and their Catholic faith. One of Colum’s most famous early poems is “An Old Woman of the Roads.” Its title refers to so-called tinkers, itinerant peddlers who traveled the roads of Ireland in their wagons and sold their goods. Because of their trade, tinkers did not develop roots in a specific village. In this twenty-four-line poem, which is composed of six four-line stanzas, the old woman speaks in the first person. She is a humble but proud woman with simple desires. She dreams of having a house with a hearth, heated by sod, in which she could have a bed and a dresser. She imagines that this house would also be her store, in which she could display her goods to eager customers. She is tired of endless traveling in her wagon, and she dreams of stability, which she associates with peace. Like almost all Irish peasants, she is deeply committed to the Catholic faith that gives her the strength to endure suffering with quiet dignity. In the final stanza, the old woman realizes that she may never have a house in this life, but she still dreams of paradise, where she will be “out of the wind’s and the rain’s way.” As she travels the roads of Ireland, she prays to God “night and day.”

As for other Irish peasants, God’s presence in their daily lives and the resurrection are realities that she does not question. She is tired of the constant struggle to survive in abject poverty, but she never forgets that God loves her, and she believes that she will eventually return to her true “house” in heaven. With many different uses of the word house, Colum enables his readers to appreciate the quiet dignity and profound spirituality of ordinary Irish people. It is not at all surprising that “An Old Woman of the Roads” remains a poem beloved by generations of Irish readers and readers of Irish descent.

“A Cradle Song”

Another 1907 poem that has remained popular is...

(The entire section is 1162 words.)