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  • Padraic Colum: Patriot Propagandist for the Poets’ Revolution*
  • Damien Murray (bio)

Shortly after Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic outside Dublin’s General Post Office on Easter Monday, 1916, his fellow revolutionary Joseph Plunkett sent seven men across the street to the Atlantic Wireless School of Telegraphy, from which they broadcast to the world that the Irish Republic had been declared.1 Meanwhile, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood seized the telegraph office on Valencia Island off the southwest coast of Ireland and dispatched a message in code to John Devoy and his fellow Clan na Gael leaders in America: “Tom successfully operated today.”2 With these actions the leaders of the Easter Rising demonstrated that they understood that their insurrection was a propaganda event as well as a military episode that would be scrutinized internationally, especially in the United States, where Irish American nationalist support would continue to be crucial. Over the following days, however, the rebels were unable to shape the flow of information about events in Dublin. Both the British press and Irish constitutional nationalists portrayed the insurgents as socialists, anarchists, and murderous rioters, an impression that was echoed in the American press.

As Pearse, Plunkett, and Thomas MacDonagh walked to their executions on 3 and 4 May, however, one man—the New York-based poet, playwright, and writer Padraic Colum—had begun the process of exalting the rebel leaders in the eyes of the American public. In his defense of his former friends and literary colleagues Colum played a leading role in promoting not only the cause of Irish independence in the United States but also a vision of an Irish nationalist movement [End Page 104] led by intellectuals like him. In doing so, Colum undoubtedly believed that he was being true to the values of the radical nationalist circle of intellectuals to which he had belonged before World War I. Speaking of his generation of artists and dramatists, Colum wrote in 1907: “We have achieved the nation, and the nation is about to become self-conscious.”3 When he briefly returned to Ireland in 1922, however, he realized that the new Irish Free State would be led by pragmatic politicians and not by intellectuals. An account of Colum’s activism on behalf of Irish nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic therefore reminds us about prewar activists’ vision of an Irish nationalism led by artists and writers, but also about how the Irish Revolution that followed the Easter Rising failed to fulfill those dreams.

Through his life and work Padraic Colum reflected the complexity and fluidity of Irish national consciousness in the early 1900s. He was a bridge between rural peasant Ireland and Dublin middle-class intellectuals, between the elite theatre of W. B. Yeats and the journalism of radical Irish nationalism, and between the separatist Irish cultural identity reflected in the Gaelic language revival and the European cosmopolitanism hinted at in his egalitarian marriage. Born in Long-ford in 1881, Colum moved to Dublin with the rest of his family when his father, a former teacher at a local workhouse, got a job as a stationmaster at the Sandycove railway station. After Colum left school, he worked as a clerk with Irish Railway Clearing House in Kildare Street for five years. It was during this time that Colum joined the Gaelic League and became good friends with Arthur Griffith, who published Colum’s first poems in his newspaper the United Irishman. Colum also quickly developed a reputation as a playwright, and two of his plays—The Land (1905) and Thomas Muskerry (1910)—were performed at W. B. Yeats’s new theatre on Abbey Street. Nevertheless, Colum rejected Yeats’s symbolism for a more realistic dramatic style and helped to form the National Theatre of Ireland in 1907.4 By his early thirties Colum had become part of an intellectual circle that would include some of the signatories of the Easter Proclamation. [End Page 105] His wife Mary, the noted literary critic, was a teacher at Patrick Pearse’s school, St. Enda’s. While there, she worked with Thomas MacDonagh and David Houston, with whom Colum cofounded the Irish Review in...


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