The Burns Library’s Irish Collection contains a wide variety of wonderful and fascinating books. One day, having given in to the temptation to look at some beautiful book covers, I looked at some books by Irish writer Padraic Column. Intrigued by the graphics on the covers of the books, I was not prepared for the stunning illustrations inside!
Padraic Colum, born December 8, 1881 was an Irish poet, playwright and novelist. Born in County Longford in a poor Catholic family, he spent much time in his youth in Longford and County Cavan. He joined the Gaelic League and became a champion for the nationalist cause. Arthur Griffith who founded and ran the United Irishman newspaper became a patron to Colum and published early poems in his newspaper.
It was in the early 1900’s that Colum became associated with famous figures of the Irish Literary revival; Williams Butler Yeats, George William Russell (AE), and James Joyce. He began to write plays and his second play, The Land, opened at the Abbey Theatre in 1905 with great success. After a quarrel with others in the Abbey circle, Colum left the Abbey Theatre Company. Colum’s last play, Thomas Muskerry, closed in 1910.
After his falling out with the Abbey Theatre Company, Colum returned to writing poetry. Remarkable for its rich, clear and lyrical nature, his verse echoes early Irish poetry. Speakers in the collection, Wild Earth, represent people in rural Ireland. One poem, “She Moved through the Fair,” is noted as a successful recreation of a folk song and is even today played and sung in Ireland and the United States. A YouTube search for this poem retrieves clips from singers that cross ages, geographic locations, and styles.
In 1914 Colum left Ireland and moved to the United States where he remained for most of his life. He produced more dramatic works, poetry collections, and novels, some for children. His books for children are most interesting and enjoyable, both the textual content and the illustrations. In fact, it was a selection of children’s books which I first noticed. Several of the illustrators with whom Colum collaborated were immigrants and came from revolutionary upheaval in homelands such as Russia and Hungary. One famous illustrator, however, was the brother of William Butler Yeats. Jack Yeats illustrated Colum’s short story collection, The Big Tree of Bunlahy.
Even though he settled in the United States, much of Colum’s writing for children harkens back to the traditions with which he was nurtured as a young boy. In fact, the dedication of The Big Tree reveals Colum’s respect for those who shared his native cultural traditions, such as songs, stories and folklore:
“To my many aunts
And notably to
Josephine, Rose, Margaret, Mary
But especially to the one whose house neighboured The Big Tree,
And at whose hearth I heard such wise and witty discourse,
My Aunt Anne.”
The Big Tree of Bunlahy : Stories of My Own Countryside by Padraic Colum, illustrated by Jack Butler Yeats.
The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, illustrated by Willie Pogány.
The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said by Padraic Colum and Dugald Stewart Walker.
The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes by Padraic Colum and Dugald Stewart Walker.
- Kathleen Williams, Irish Studies Librarian.