Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1949
Padraic Colum is best known as a dramatist who was influential in the founding of the Irish National Theatre Society and the Abbey Theatre in the early twentieth century, the author of such realistic plays as The Land (1905) and Thomas Muskerry (1910), both dealing with the world of the peasant the small farmer. He is also recognized as a poet of the period known as the Irish Literary Renaissance and, after coming to the United States, as a writer of children’s literature, having authored more than twenty-five children’s books primarily about folklore and mythology. He is not, however, well-known as a short-story writer. Nor does Colum necessarily deserve such recognition, for he wrote only about thirty adult short fictions, of uneven quality; the thirteen reprinted here represent his best work in that genre, which his friend James Joyce pioneered as a distinctly modern form in the epoch-making collection Dubliners (1914).
Frank O’Connor, also a contemporary of Colum, and, like his countrymen Joyce, George Moore, and Seán O’Faoláin, a master of the short-story form, recounts an anecdote in A Short History of Irish Literature (1967), which perhaps explains why Colum failed in the form in which certain of his colleagues succeeded. O’Connor states that one night he was complaining to Æ (George William Russell), one of the leading founders of the Irish Literary Revival, of his indigestion. Æ roared with laughter and said, “Every serious Irish writer has a pain in his belly. Yeats has a pain in his belly; Joyce has a terrible pain in his belly; now you have a pain in your belly. Padraic Colum is the only Irish writer who never had a pain at all.”
Indeed, there is little pain in these thirteen slight stories; there is much whimsy, nostalgia, and affection for what Colum sees as the dignity of Irish peasant life—but not the sense of displacement, grotesqueness, and hypocrisy that dominates the stories of Joyce. Nor do Colum’s stories have what O’Connor has called, in his classic study of the short story, The Lonely Voice 1963), that sense of loneliness typified by Blaise Pascal’s statement, “The eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me,” which characterizes the short-story form at its most intense and artistic. The short story is an art form, according to O’Connor, which is as elaborate, pure, and patterned as the sonnet.
Only a few of Colum’s stories have the delicate restraint associated with the short stories of Joyce; one such piece is “Eilis: A Woman’s Story,” which is, as is typical of Colum, a story within a story told by an eighty-year-old woman, Eilis, who is of the “old culture” and who tells of contemporary events as if they were folktales. There is no real plot here, merely the poignant experience from Eilis’ own past when she forsook the chance to marry Shaun Gorman, whom she loved, for Michael Conroy, the man whom her father arranged for her to marry. When she goes in secret to meet Gorman and comes to a ditch that separates his fields from her father’s, her knees fail her and she cannot pass; thus, out of loyalty, or perhaps simply passivity, Eilis accepts Conroy, a good man, a man, whom she says, “wouldn’t let me break a sod of turf across my knee, he took such care of me.” As is typical of the Chekhovian notion of the modern short story, the piece is less a dramatic tale than it is the sensitive evocation of “a woman’s story,” similar to the stories about quiet and enclosed women in Dubliners.
More typical of the storytelling convention of which Colum makes use are such fairy-tale forms as “The Peacocks of Baron’s Hall” and “The Slopes of Tara.” “The Peacocks of Baron’s Hall” is told in the true folklore tradition by an old huntsman as a tale within a tale; the motivation for its telling is to explain, in the manner of folklore, why anyone who lives in Baron’s Hall must keep the peacocks that are hatched there on the estate. The central and almost mythical figures of the tale are the Little Baron and his sister Lady Sabrina, both no taller than a child of twelve. The villains of the piece are the uncles of the two, who are greedy for the estate and gradually drive them out to live in a small lodge nearby. The fairy-tale beauty of the estate becomes destroyed by the heirs of the greedy uncles, and the Little Baron and his sister die, but the peacocks remain as the sole reminder of a magical world of Irish folklore that no longer exists—the world of fairy itself.
“The Slopes of Tara” is a curious combination of the realistic and the fairy tale; Colum attempts to portray the young protagonist Shaun, “a survival from a vanished population,” as caught in a kind of enchantment. Shaun dreams the folklore legend of a nobleman who built a turret for a beautiful young woman. In this highly stylized story, Shaun, displaced and drifting, living a life of lonely dreams, goes to the house of a female friend, who is then visited by a beautiful young woman he has seen earlier—a visionary girl from whom he recovers a sense of reality only when he turns away from her. Fancying her to be the beautiful lady of his dreams for whom the nobleman built the turret, Shaun is haunted by the experience. This is an elliptical story in the fairy-tale tradition—more a lyric meditation than a story, for it evokes life lived in the lost world of dream and imagination. It is perhaps stories such as these that suggest why Irish writers of the turn of the century found the short story such a natural form, for it has always remained close to the folktale from which it originated, and, indeed, the Irish imagination, regardless of the sophistication of Joyce’s stories, somehow still remains close to the legendary world of fairy tales.
Much simpler are the comic stories, such as “The Little Pension,” which takes place on the day that John Greggins goes to pick up his army pension check at the town post office. In gratitude to the government, he hires a professional letter writer to compose a formal letter of appreciation for him. On the way home, full of the high-sounding tone of the letter, he addresses some idlers about the bridge that he is crossing: “think of them that in the old, ancient days raised it in majesty and in glory to be a pattern and a credit to their posterity.” Mocking him by tossing a coin at his feet, the idlers are each rapped on the head for their disrespect, and as a result John Greggins is put in jail for starting a fight. The next day, chastened, he goes home, and the “silence was upon him like unto the silence beyond the trees and hedges.”
“Marcus of Clooney” is a bit of Irish nonsense and blather, truly much ado about nothing, in which a young man goes to elaborate lengths to be introduced to a young girl, only to have his plans foiled by his own timidity and by Marcus O’Driscoll’s inconsequential chatter about whether the young man should carry a walking stick. When his chance to meet the young woman has been missed, he storms off, charging that fellows such as Marcus O’Driscoll have made “the country the way it is.”
“Catherine Mulamphy and the Man from the North” combines folktale conventions with turn-of-the-century Irish peasant values to create another bit of comic nonsense. The chief characters are Martin Mulamphy, his wife, Catherine, and Neil, a Northerner who strikes a bargain with Martin to purchase Catherine. The story is filled with several small comic bits, such as the way Martin deals with the lamentable fact that he has no watch: He ties the lid of a small canister to his watch chain and puts it in his pocket, for appearance is everything to Martin. Neil gives Martin money for his wife as a result of an agreement that he will pick her up in one year and a day. When the time comes, however, Martin changes his mind and returns the money, but not until besting the Northerner in a fight. The story ends with Catherine angry at her husband, not for trying to sell her but because she has discovered that her ring, which Martin said was gold, is really only brass.
Colum’s stories are widely uneven in quality and thematic significance. They range from such satisfying, illustrative tales as “The Flute Player’s Story,” which delicately recounts an experience that satirizes the mysterious “passion of women,” to such vaguely unsatisfying episodes as “Marriage,” which deals with a young woman’s efforts to raise an adequate dowry for her husband-to-be. Moreover, whereas a story such as “Pilgrimage Home” is an ambitious attempt to focus on the gradual loss of the old, simple life and the realization of modern disorder, a piece such as “Land Hunger” is a quite simple tale of a father’s desire to gain more land for his son’s inheritance.
In addition to the eleven peasant stories, the collection also contains two “Dublin stories,” which, although they are probably included because they seem to share the satiric worldview of Joyce’s more famous collection, are not as effective as the simple and often-lyric meditations and tales of the folk. “A Dublin Day” focuses on a minor poet, Mortimer O’Looney, who sets out to sell an unused burial plot that he owns. He becomes so wrapped up in a poem that he is composing, however, that he forgets that he had earlier received a letter from the United Cemeteries Office informing him that the association has been dissolved and that no further claims on the plot can be liquidated. This story and the other Dublin story, “Three Men,” might be satires of Dublin literary aspiration and the pseudointellectual life there, but they come nowhere near to equaling the biting criticism of that sterile and provincial city found in the stories of Joyce.
Sanford Sternlicht, in his long introduction to this slim volume, makes a valiant effort to justify Colum’s short stories, claiming that Colum belongs in the tradition of George Moore’s The Untilled Field (1903), which encouraged young Irish writers to write about Irish life in clear and direct language. The introduction reads like a traditional critical analysis of the stories, pointing out the various symbolic motifs that Colum uses and emphasizing his central theme of the nobility of the Irish peasant and their love of their land, their history, and their cultural tradition. Sternlicht claims that Colum’s stories have received almost no critical attention, and the present book represents the first effort to bring his short fiction to the attention of the general reader.
Yet, except for those people who are particularly interested in turn-of-the-century Irish life or those who are academically interested in Irish literary culture (the book is one in a series of Irish Studies published by Syracuse University Press), it is doubtful that these stories will arouse great interest. The modern short story received an important impetus from such Irish writers as George Moore and James Joyce—an impetus that has been sustained by such others as Frank O’Connor, Séan O’Faoláin, and Liam O’Flaherty. Padraic Colum seems destined to remain a minor light among these Irish greats, if for no other reason, than, as Æ once observed, he has no real pain in his belly.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 29
Choice. XXII, May, 1985, p. 1330.
The New York Times Book Review. XC, February 24, 1985, p. 26.
The New Yorker. LXI, April 1, 1985, p. 112.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, November 30, 1984, p. 82.
Times Literary Supplement. September 6, 1985, p. 980.
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