Padraic Colum

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Padraic Colum (KAWL-uhm) was a prolific writer who expressed himself in many different genres during the first seven decades of the twentieth century. He helped found the Abbey Theatre in Dublin with William Butler Yeats, and he wrote three major plays: The Land (pr., pb. 1905), The Fiddler’s House (pr., pb. 1907), and Thomas Muskerry (pr., pb. 1910). All three plays deal with the dignity of Irish farmers. He wrote numerous short stories; two major novels, Castle Conquer (1923) and The Flying Swans (1957); and numerous essays on Irish history and politics. After his immigration to the United States in 1914 with his wife, Mary Colum, he became especially famous for his elegant retelling of folk tales for children. Some of his most admired books for children are The King of Ireland’s Son (1916), The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles (1921), and Legends of Hawaii (1937).


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Unlike other great writers of the literary movement called the Irish Renaissance (also the Celtic Revival), such as William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and James Joyce, who were his friends, Padraic Colum was from a peasant background. He understood profoundly the beliefs and moral values of Irish farmers. Although he moved to the United States in 1914, his thoughts never really left the Irish countryside of his youth. In his poetry and prose, he wrote in a deceptively simple style. His poetry captured the simple dignity of Irish peasants, whose emotions and struggles he presented as representations of the rich diversity of human experience. Some of his poems, including “An Old Woman of the Roads” and “A Cradle Song,” have been learned by heart by generations of Irish and Irish American students. His poetry is immediately accessible to young readers, but more mature readers also appreciate the simple eloquence and evocative power of his poems. He captured the essence of Irish folklore and popular culture and transmitted to readers its profound universality. He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1948 and served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 1950 to 1951. In 1952, Colum won an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. He received the Gregory Medal of the Irish Academy of Letters in 1953 and the Regina Medal in 1961.

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Padraic Colum’s career as a writer spanned nearly three-quarters of a century. His first one-act play was published in 1901, and he continued to write poetry until his death in 1972. For most of his life, his living was made largely from his children’s books, many of which have become classics. Like all truly good books of their kind, they are readable and engaging for adults as well as for children. Such works as A Boy in Eirinn (1913), The King of Ireland’s Son (1916), The Adventures of Odysseus (1918), The Children of Odin (1920), The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles (1921), and Legends of Hawaii (1937) won for him respect both as a children’s writer and as an expert on folklore and mythology. “The storyteller,” he wrote, “must have respect for the child’s mind and the child’s conception of the world, knowing it for a complete mind and a complete conception. If a storyteller has that respect, he need not be childish in his language. . . . If children are to will out of the imagination and create out of the will, we must see to it that their imaginations are not clipped or made trivial.”

Colum’s literary output also included two novels, Castle Conquer (1923) and The Flying Swans (1957), several travel books, a literary recollection of James Joyce (written with Mary Colum), and a biography of...

(This entire section contains 518 words.)

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Arthur Griffith, one of his earliest friends and the first president of the Irish Free State. A bibliography of Colum’s separately published books would run to more than seventy titles. If miscellaneous works were added to this—books he edited, prefaces, introductions, and periodical publications of poems, stories, and essays—the number would be in the thousands.

In all Colum’s prose works, his style is direct, lucid, and graceful, but his literary reputation rests most securely on his poetry, which has been widely anthologized and warmly praised by writers and critics since his poems first began to appear in the opening years of the twentieth century. The poet George Russell (Æ), one of Colum’s earliest and most enthusiastic admirers, wrote in 1902 that he had “discovered a new Irish genius: . . . only just twenty, born an agricultural labourer’s son, laboured himself, came to Dublin two years ago and educated himself, writes astonishingly well, poems and dramas with a real originality. . . . I prophesy about him.” By 1904, Colum’s poems had begun to appear in anthologies in Ireland and the United States, and since then every major collection of Irish poetry has included his work. Critics have consistently placed his name high on lists of the best Irish poets, but his poems have inspired few detailed scholarly studies. His poetry, in fact, resists such treatment: It is not easily identified with any particular school or movement, and it contains no esoteric philosophy to be glossed or obscure passages and patterns of symbolism to be unraveled. Indeed, its most distinguishing characteristics are simplicity and clarity. Often the poems are dramatic lyrics spoken by Irish peasants. Many are acutely accurate observations of commonplaces, as are those in his Creatures (1927) and The Vegetable Kingdom (1954).


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Although few scholars have written about Padraic Colum’s poetry, scholars and poets have been generous in honoring him. He was elected president of the Poetry Society of America in 1938 and won its medal in 1940. He also received honorary doctorates from the University of Ireland and Columbia University and awards from the Academy of Irish Letters and the American Academy of Poets. Critic Edmund Wilson, after reading a collection of Colum’s poems, wrote to him that “I wept while reading . . . some of them—not for sentiment, which doesn’t often make me weep, but for the beauty of the lines. If everybody in Ireland hadn’t been so overshadowed by Yeats, you would certainly have stood out as one of the best poets in English of your time.”

Colum’s reputation as a poet was well deserved, but it was one that did not altogether please him. He did not disown the title of poet, but he frequently objected to the exclusiveness of the label when it overshadowed his accomplishments in the theater. On one occasion, while discussing with a friend how future generations would remember him, he insisted that the popular notion that he was primarily a poet was a misconception. “I am primarily a man of the theatre,” he argued, “and always have been.” Colum repeated this judgment several times toward the end of his life. A few weeks before his death at the age of ninety, he told a reporter from The New York Times that he was often prouder of his plays than of anything else he had written. Whenever he was in a position to influence the shaping of his public identity, he was careful to point out the close connection between his poetry and his plays. One such opportunity came when he was being interviewed by a writer who was preparing an introductory study of his works. “In the early part,” Colum directed, “put my poems and plays together. The sort of plays I was writing for the theatre and the sort of poems I was writing are about the same sort of people and treat them in the same sort of way.” Referring to such early poems as “The Plougher” and “An Old Woman of the Roads,” he suggested that “you would put it best by saying that they were dramatizations. They’re really characters in a play that hadn’t been written.” He was given another opportunity when Irish Radio invited him to sketch a prose portrait of himself. “Anything I have written, whether verse or narrative,” he said during the broadcast, “goes back to my first literary discipline, the discipline of the theatre.”


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Bowen, Zack. Padraic Colum: A Biographical-Critical Introduction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970. This excellent introduction to Colum’s works was based on a careful study of his writings but also on extensive interviews between Colum and Zack Bowen in the 1960’s.

Colum, Mary. Life and the Dream. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1947. A firsthand account by Colum’s wife of the impact of the Irish Literary Revival. The events and personalities of that creative period are regarded nostalgically and rather uncritically.

Hogan, Robert, Richard Burnham, and Daniel P. Poteet. The Rise of the Realists. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979. This volume concentrates on the years of Colum’s involvement with the Abbey Theatre and the national theater movement. Although it focuses on the plays, it sheds light on Colum’s poetry.

Journal of Irish Literature 2, no. 1 (January, 1973). This special issue on Colum contains a miscellany of Colum material, including tributes from a number of Irish scholars, a substantial interview, and articles surveying Colum’s achievements. Also included is a portfolio of work by Colum, including two plays, poems for children and other verse, and various prose pieces, one of which is a self-portrait.

Murphy, Ann. “Appreciation: Padraic Colum (1881-1972), National Poet.” Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies 17, no. 4 (Winter, 1982): 128-147. A thoughtful essay that describes well the important place of Colum in twentieth century Irish poetry.

Murray, Christopher. “Padraic Colum’s The Land and Cultural Nationalism.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 2, no. 2 (1996): 5-15. A short but accurate description of Colum’s support for Irish independence from Great Britain.

“Poet to the Eye, Giant in the Canon.” Irish Times, December 11, 2006, p. 14. This article, written after the 135th birthday of the poet, argues that Colum’s skills as a poet should be more highly recognized.

Sternlicht, Sanford. Padraic Colum. Boston: Twayne, 1985. An introductory study of Colum’s long life and various literary achievements. Much attention is given to the poems. Also contains a detailed chapter on the prose and another on Colum’s works of mythology, which are associated with his children’s writing. Includes a chronology and a bibliography.

_______. “Padraic Colum: Poet of the 1960’s.” Colby Literary Quarterly 25, no. 4 (1989): 253-257. A short but insightful analysis of Images of Departure elegies written by Colum in the 1960’s.


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