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Padraic Colum: The Irishman who preserved the local lore of Longford – and Hawaii

On January 11th 1972, Padraic Colum died in a nursing home in Enfield, Connecticut. During his 90 years, he wrote dozens of poems, plays and books.

While many know his poems “An Old Woman of the Roads”, “The Drover” and “She moved through the Fair”, much of his other work goes underappreciated.

Colum was a key figure in the Irish literary revival, but he also played a role in preserving Hawaiian folklore. So how did a writer fascinated with life in Ireland’s Midlands end up recording local legends on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Here’s Paraic Colum’s tale.

Early life

Born in December 1881, Padraic Colum began life in the long limestone building that was the Longford Union Workhouse. It housed hundreds of inmates but, at this time, it wasn’t as crowded as it had been during the height of the famine.

Colum’s father, Patrick, was the workhouse Master so the family lived at the centre of the building, which separated the male and female wings of accommodation. Here, he interacted with the inmates, many of which were elderly and had interesting tales to tell. His experiences here inspired some of his later works, like his play Thomas Muskerry, which is about a workhouse master who eventually becomes an inmate.

In 1888, when Padraic was just six, his father lost his job for not carrying out his duties. So his father emigrated to America with the hope of finding fortune during Colorado’s gold rush. However, this plan didn’t pan out and he moved to New York before returning home to Ireland just a few years later.

During this time, Colum moved to a farm in county Cavan where he lived with the relatives of his mother Susan. Here, Colum got to know his uncle, Micky Burns, who sold poultry, sang ballads and told stories. The experience inspired his first play Broken Soil – which was later renamed The Fiddler’s House.

Working and writing in Dublin

When Colum’s father returned to Ireland in 1892, he moved the family to Dublin where he secured a job at the Sandycove railway station. They lived nearby in the suburb of Glasthule – in a house which today bears a plaque with the poet’s name.

Once again, Colum’s father lost his job. But Colum, who was the oldest of eight children, stepped in to help. At 17, he passed an exam to become a clerk at the Irish Railway Clearing House.

He worked here until 1903 and, during this time, began to write. He joined the Gaelic League and befriended many well-known nationalists, such as Patrick Pearse. In fact, his first poems were published in The United Irishman – a weekly run by Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith.

Once published, he attracted the attention of other writers like Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats and George William Russell – many of whom helped him develop his work. He also befriended James Joyce who, like him, was a regular visitor to the National Library on Kildare Street.

Though Colum didn’t pursue further formal education, in 1904, he received a five year scholarship which allowed him to write full-time. The support came from Thomas Hughes Kelly – a wealthy American who was passionate about Irish literature.

Colum then went on to help launch the Abbey Theatre, writing several of its early productions – many of which explored vanishing trades and customs in the Midlands, which drove emigration from rural areas. But little did he know that he would end up emigrating himself.

Moving to America

In 1912, Colum married Mary Maguire – a well-known writer and literary critic. Two years later, they organised an overdue honeymoon trip to visit Colum’s aunt in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The couple didn’t intend to stay, but they never moved back to Ireland. Later, Colum simply put the decision down to the fact that they couldn’t make a living as writers in Dublin.

Unlike his father, Colum quickly found success in America. Two years after arriving, he signed a contract with Macmillan publishing to write a series of children’s books in collaboration with the Hungarian illustrator Willy Pogany. The first book, The King of Ireland’s Son, was based on an old Irish story and proved to be a hit.

As a result of this work, he was hired by the Hawaiian legislature to collect some of the island’s traditional legends and turn them into children’s stories for use in the school curriculum.

After researching Polynesian folklore, learning some of the language, and interviewing locals, Colum wrote three volumes of stories. When Barack Obama visited Ireland in 2011, Enda Kenny presented him with the books in a gesture which recognised his Hawaiian roots, as well as his Irish heritage.

At the time, the then president said: “It just confirms that if you need somebody to do some good writing, hire an Irishman.”

”The King of Ireland’s Son” (1916)

A brief stop in Paris

Like many other Irish writers, Colum continued to write about Ireland despite being abroad. He got involved in Irish societies and continued to rub shoulders with well-known literary figures like Robert Frost and Edgar Lee Masters.

But in the early 1930s, he decided to return to Europe to collaborate with another Irish writer – James Joyce. A few years earlier, the author gave a nod to Colum’s work in Ulysses with the line: “I liked Colum’s Drover. Yes, I think he has that queer thing genius”.

Coincidentally, Mary Colum’s review of Ulysses was reportedly one of just three that Joyce approved of.

In Paris, Colum helped Joyce prepare and transcribe parts of Finnegans Wake. They crossed paths with Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald too – neither of whom made a good impression on Colum, according to an RTE interview he gave years later.

Later life

Mary and Padraic Colum returned to the US, where they lectured at Columbia University in New York. They were working together on a book called Our Friend James Joyce when Mary died in 1957.

After her death, Colum finished the book and continued to write for the next decade. When he died in January 1972, he had published over 60 books.

Though he died in Connecticut, his remains were brought back to Ireland and buried at St. Fintan’s Cemetery in Sutton – near Dublin’s Howth Head. Today, an annual festival in Longford celebrates his life and work.

Padraic Colum, along with hundreds of other inspirational Irish emigrants, are remembered at EPIC. Discover more with our virtual museum tour.