Colum, Padraic (1881–1972), playwright, poet, and novelist, was born 8 December 1881 in Longford, eldest of eight children of Patrick Collumb, master of the Longford workhouse and stationmaster in the Sandycove railway station near Dublin, and Susan Collumb (née MacCormack), from Co. Cavan. Colum grew up in Dublin and received only eight years formal education at Glasthule national school. At 17 he passed an examination for a clerkship in the Irish Railway Clearing House. He was named after his father, but in 1901 he gaelicised his name when he joined the Gaelic League. It was at this time he met W. B. Yeats (qv), AE (qv), Arthur Griffith (qv), and James Joyce (qv). Griffith became Colum's patron and started publishing his poems in the United Irishman (1902). Among the early plays, The Saxon shillin' won a Cumann na nGaedheal prize in 1902, and some accomplishment came with Broken soil (1903), later revised as The fiddler's house (1907); but it was his second play, The land, which opened in the Abbey Theatre in June 1905, that first gave Colum and the Abbey real success. Colum had his roots in Irish catholic peasant life, so he felt that his drama and poetry had a more truly national flavour than those writers who came from the Irish protestant ascendancy. After quarrelling with Yeats and Frank (qv) and William George Fay (qv), Colum quit the Irish National Theatre company. Thomas Muskerry (1910) was his last commercially successful play to be performed by the Abbey Theatre; however, the critics regarded it as inordinately melancholy. Although Colum continued to write plays, his greatest contributions to Irish theatre and his career as a playwright were essentially over by 1910.
Colum's creative energies now turned to build on the success of his first volume of poems, Wild earth (1907). The verse was remarkable for its lyrical simplicity and clarity. Often he depicted the solitary figures of Irish rural life, such as ‘A poor scholar of the forties’ or ‘The old woman of the roads’, setting their peasant existence and ancient ways within the eternal cycle of the seasons. The poems have something of the sudden richness and exactness of early Irish poetry. Of the early poems, ‘Ploughing’ seems the most starkly contemplative, while ‘She moved through the fair’ has become one of the most successful, having been recreated in folksong, insuring Colum's popularity with modern audiences.
In 1909 he met Mary Catherine Gunning (Mary Colum (qv)), a graduate of UCD, critic, and suffragette. They married in 1912, and had no children. In 1912–13 he edited the Irish Review, published a book on Ireland, My Irish year (1912), and joined and began to drill with the Irish Volunteers (1913). In 1914 he and his wife left Ireland for America. It was in America that Colum began writing children's books with extraordinary success. Among the most popular were A boy in Eirinn (1913) and The king of Ireland's son (1916), both of which were memorable for their vividness and sense of wonder. It was in 1916 that he also published an anthology, Poems of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, in response to the Easter rising; and in the same year Wild earth, and other poems was printed, a volume of poetry that established Colum as an important Irish voice in exile. In contrast to Wild earth, the poems of Dramatic legends, and other poems (1922) seem forced and formulaic compared to the naturalism of his earlier verse. Now more affluent, he travelled to Paris to see James Joyce and to assist him in the preparation of manuscripts, and would write a preface for Joyce's Anna Livia Plurabelle (1929). He was also officially invited to Hawaii to work on a folklore programme for children, eventually publishing The gateway of the day (1924) and The bright island (1925). Both texts were combined to make Legends of Hawaii (1937).
Colum published in 1923 his first novel, Castle Conquer, which dealt with the trial of Francis Gillick for an agrarian murder. In the book Colum's strengths are clearly in his feelings for character and nature. The weaknesses of this novel are balanced by his strengths in his next books. He published a second work about Ireland, The road around Ireland (1926), and then Creatures (1927), a volume of poems that explore various fauna, such as ‘Crows’, ‘Asses’, and ‘Condors’. To this menagerie he then added a group of flower poems in his next volume of verse, Old pastures (1930), in which he also includes poems that explore psychological extremes, loss, sexual passions, and unrequited love. ‘A man bereaved’ or ‘Scanderbeg’ are good examples of his use of dramatic soliloquy. In between these years he published Balloon (1929), a Strindbergian fantasy drama that has several echoes of Joyce's A portrait of the artist as a young man.
From the 1930s to the 1950s Colum was involved in a number of projects. There was an anthology of short stories, The big tree (1935), illustrated by Jack B. Yeats (qv). He also attempted to write an epic poem like the Iliad or the Aeneid, because he thought of ancient Ireland in epic terms, just as Yeats had done. The result was The story of Lowry Maen (1937), 1,800 lines of blank verse that tells of a bronze-age prince who, having been exiled, returns to Ireland to claim his throne. But the poem fails because it has no sense of drama, and the resolution to the piece is without a great struggle, and as a result is anticlimactic. His next volume of poems, Flower pieces (1938), was more successful. The verse was well crafted, with exquisitely evocative lyrics such as ‘The lilies’, ‘The tulips’, and ‘The roses’. Once again, Colum returned to the novel form in this period, producing Flying swans (1957), a bildungsroman that draws on mythology and is principally concerned with themes of exile and return. Mary Colum died in 1957 while assisting Padraic, who was working on two biographies: Our friend James Joyce (1958), which captures Joyce in his several habitats with charming anecdotal power; and Arthur Griffith (1959), a sensitive account of his old friend.
In 1961–6 Colum wrote five Noh plays, containing prose and poetry, and loosely based on the Japanese tradition that Ezra Pound had introduced to Yeats. The plays were a homage to Yeats and a recognition of the great poet's later dramatic aesthetic. Each play was named and located in an ancient place of significance in Irish history. Moytura, Glendalough, Cloughoughter, Monasterboice, and Kilmore all focus on nineteenth- and twentieth-century figures of importance in Irish history and literature. In this same period The poet's circuits: collected poems of Ireland (1960) was published. The volume collects the best of the early poetry, together with an autobiographical narrative, ‘Fore-piece’, reminiscent of Wordsworth's ‘Prelude’, and it was well received by critics. Like his final collection, Images of departure (1969), where some beautiful lyrics recall memories of his wife, The poet's circuits established Colum as an important figure in bringing about Ireland's literary renaissance and secured his presence in twentieth-century Irish poetry. Colum died at the Parkway Pavilion nursing home in Enfield, Connecticut, 11 January 1972. His body was taken to Ireland for interment in St Fintan's cemetery, Co. Dublin.