Colum, Mary Catherine (‘Molly’) (1887–1957), critic, editor, and teacher, was born 13 June 1887 in Co. Sligo, daughter of Charles Maguire of Derryhawlagh, Killesher parish, Co. Fermanagh, and Maria Maguire (née Gunning). After the death of her parents, she was raised by her maternal grandmother Catherine Gunning and by her uncles, then by a maternal aunt after Catherine's death (which she later described as the central event of her early life) until she was sent to the St Louis convent boarding school in Monaghan and later abroad to a German convent school. She described her convent education as one that ‘was regarded as a means of fitting our souls for God rather than as a preparation for life’ (Life and the dream, 31); however, the French emphasis at St Louis not only prepared her to read modern languages for a degree of the Royal University (which had been superseded by the National University by the time she took her BA), it also provided the foundation in classics and in modern literature that established her as a comparativist in her literary sensibility.
Her university years coincided with the early years of the Irish literary revival in Dublin. She later recalled: ‘Between Abbey Street and College Green, a five minutes’ walk, one would meet every person of importance in the life of the city at a certain time in the afternoon’ (ibid., 95). She organised a student society called the Twilight Literary Society (after the ‘Celtic twilight’) and as its president she became active in Dublin's literary and artistic circles. W. B. Yeats (qv), whom she called the most remarkable person she ever knew, encouraged her to abandon her interest in writing fiction and write criticism instead. She remained in Dublin after taking her degree, teaching for Patrick Pearse (qv) at his bilingual girls’ school, St Ita's. With fellow teachers Thomas MacDonagh (qv) and Padraic Colum (qv) and David Houston of the College of Science, she founded the Irish Review in 1911. It ran until 1915. English journals praised her first review essay (published in the first number of the Review) of the collected works of John Millington Synge (qv).
She married poet and playwright Padraic Colum in 1912. She described his rather odd proposal and her acceptance in her autobiography (Life and the dream, 175). After a tearful scene with a rejected suitor, Padraic said: ‘I think that to save yourself trouble, you should marry me. Then these fellows will leave you alone and you don't have to go through any more of these scenes.’ She responded: ‘All right, Colum; maybe that would be best.’ They accepted the offer of passage to America from Padraic's aunt in 1914, planning to stay only a few months while he gave some lectures; however, except for visits abroad and three years in France, the Colums spent the rest of their lives in the US. When they settled in New York, she went to work at Women's Wear translating articles about French fashion, interviewing designers, and writing occasional theatre features. Later her excellent critical mind found outlets in the major literary journals of the day: Scribner's, the Dial, the New Republic, the Saturday Review of Literature, the New York Times Book Review, and the Tribune. She also wrote for the Forum and served as its literary editor from 1933 to 1940.
She received the first of her two Guggenheim fellowships in 1930. It financed a three-year stay in France. Her project, a comparative study of the continental and English origins of literary modernism, published as From these roots (1937), received an award for criticism from the American Academy. Her second fellowship (1938) brought the Colums back to an uneasy Europe on the brink of war. They visited Germany to see life in the Third Reich for themselves, and left Paris just after the Munich appeasement.
The Colums settled at 415 Central Park West in New York; they both taught – sometimes the same class – at Columbia University until 1956. They were a contrast: Padraic small, modest, and gentle, and Molly formidable and highly opinionated. She won most of the arguments. During this time she produced her second book, the autobiography Life and the dream (1947), an account of her life from boarding school to her return from Europe in 1938. The book's strength is its recreation of literary Dublin before the first world war from the viewpoint of a lively undergraduate woman; it reveals her critical personality, her demanding intellect, and her penchant for lionising literary and social celebrities.
Her last work was Our friend James Joyce (1958), a book written jointly with Padraic. Her chapters expanded on anecdotes from Life and the dream and concentrated on Joyce's (qv) Paris years. She included affecting accounts of their efforts to help Joyce's schizophrenic daughter Lucia. The book was unfinished when she died in New York, 22 October 1957.