Padraic Colum

Padraic Colum Memorial Plaque at Longford Workhouse Site.

Life & Times of Padraic Colum
Padraic Colum, famous poet, playwright, novelist, biographer, children’s author and folklorist, was born in Longford Workhouse on December 8th 1881, where his father was Master. He was the first of eight children born to Patrick and Susan Columb. His father left Ireland for the goldfields of Colorado around 1887 and Padraic was reared in North Longford where he became familiar with Granard, Colmcille, Bunlahy and Molly, place names which would later occur in his literary output. He was one of the best known poets of the Irish Literary Revival and throughout his long life he faithfully recorded the landscape of his native homeplace, Co Longford.

Colums father returned to Ireland in 1892 and the family moved to Glasthule, outside Dublin where Patrick Columb was employed as assistant manager at Sandycove and Glasthule railway station. Padraic attended the local national school in the area. When his mother died in 1897, the family was temporarily split up. Padraic and one brother remained in Dublin while the father and remaining children moved back to Longford. Colum finished school the following year and at the age of seventeen , he passed an exam for and was awarded a clerkship in the Irish Railway Clearing House. He did however later leave his job to concentrate on writing and in 1904, received a scholarship from Thomas Hughes Kelly, the son of a wealthy American, for a period of study and writing at UCD.

In his lifetime Colum formed friendships with many famous writers and artists including Robert Frost, W.B Yeats, and Lady Gregory. He also became a Gaelic Leaguer. It was around this time he dropped the ‘b’ form his surname, becoming Colum instead of Columb. He became a regular user of the National Library of Ireland and it was here he met James Joyce with whom he became life long friends. Through his plays he became involved with the National Theatre Society and thereafter played a vital role in the founding of The Abbey Theatre, being one of the original signatories of the Abbey charter and writing several of its early productions. His play, ‘Broken Sail’ (1903) was performed by the Irish Literary Theatre. ‘The Land’ (1905), was one of The Abbeys’ first great public successes. In 1902 he was awarded a prize by Cumann na nGaedhael for his anti-enlistment play ‘The Saxon Shillin’, a play which The Abbey Theatre rejected as anti-recruitment propaganda, prompting several members including Arthur Griffith and Maud Gonne to leave the company.

Colum was also a militant nationalist, was involved in the Howth gun-running in 1914 and was a close friend of Thomas McDonagh. It was together with his beloved Molly, David Houston and Thomas McDonagh that Colum established ‘The Irish Review’ in 1911. Colums earliest published poems also appeared in The United Irishman, a paper edited by Arthur Griffith. His first book, Wild Earth (1907) collected many of these poems and was dedicated to George William Russell. Colum has written plays, childrens lore, mythology, and biographies of his friend James Joyce, on which his wife Molly worked together with him until her death, as well as Irish patriot Arthur Griffith. ‘She moved through the fair’ which was first popularized by the famous John McCormack, has now become one of the best loved Irish lyrics.

In 1912 he married Mary (Molly)Maguire , whom he had first met when she was a student in UCD. At first the couple lived in the Dublin suburb of Donnybrook, where they held a regular Tuesday literary salon. They later moved to Howth, a fishing village to the North of Dublin City . In 1914 the couple travelled to America for what was to be visit of a few months but lasted eight years. During his time in USA, Colum took up childrens’ writing and published a number of collections of stories for children, beginning with ‘The King of Irelands Son’ (1916). After several awards and a contract for children’s literature with Macmillan Publishers, which brought him financial security he  was commissioned in 1922 by the Hawaiian Legislature to collect myths and legends from Hawaii and write them as children’s stories. They were to be used in Hawaiian schools to provide children with a background to Hawaiian folk traditions. The result was three volumes of ‘Tales and Legends of Hawaii’: At the Gateways of the Day (1924), The Bright Islands (1925) and Legends of Hawaii (1937). A first edition of ‘At the Gateways of the Day’ was presented to President Barrack Obama by Enda Kenny, Taoiseach on23rd may 2011 to commemorate his visit to Dublin.

Dr Whyte, School of English, TCD who encouraged the presentation of this gift to President Obama has this to say about Colum: “In a global culture, Colum’s work reminds us to tell our children about the myths that unite us rather than the stories that divide us. This gift is for the Obama children so that they can appreciate the stories from their father’s place of birth. Myths not only explain where we have come from, but can also guide us to where we want to go.”

Colum was a respected man of letters, a prolific author publishing over 60 books , not counting his plays. He was a man with a great love of his Irish homeland and its myths, legends and stories. He was honoured by many Universities, who were privileged to have him continue to bring the art of poetry to American students even while he himself was then eighty years of age. Some of his better known poems include ‘She moved through the fair’, ‘The Old Woman of the Roads’ and ‘The Drover’ which begins with the following lines:

“From Meath of the pastures, to wet hills by sea, through Leitrim and Longford, go my cattle and me.”

After spending several years between Ireland and USA Padraic Colum died in Enfield, Connecticut on 11th January, 1972. He is buried in St Fintan’s cemetary in Sutton, Dublin, alongside his wife Mary ‘Molly’ Maguire who had pre-deceased him in 1957.

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