The Irish-American literary critic Mary (“Mollie”) Maguire (later Colum) was born in Collooney, Co Sligo on June 13th, 1884. She shared her Sligo origins and a birthday with WB Yeats, her senior by nineteen years. When she was a student in Dublin they became friends and discussed what Colum called these “correspondences” in their backgrounds.
As a literary-minded Irish Catholic from a middle class family, Colum had a good deal in common with James Joyce as well. Her future husband, the poet and writer Padraic Colum, became friends with Joyce shortly after the latter’s time at University College Dublin; Mary studied for the same UCD degree as Joyce, in modern languages and literature, a few years after him. Later, the Colums were close to the Joyce family in Paris and she wrote one of the few early reviews of Ulysses that met with the author’s approval, in the American journal The Freeman. In perhaps the most quoted lines from Colum’s memoir, Life and the Dream (1947), she recounts that when she complained to Joyce about his refusal to acknowledge his (in her view obvious) debts to Freud and Jung in Ulysses, he answered: “I hate women who know anything.” “No, Joyce, you don’t,” she replied.
Although Colum published critical essays and reviews throughout her life, the two major phases of her career, first in literary criticism and then in autobiography, are best represented by her two books. From These Roots: the ideas that have made modern literature (1937) traces the evolution of modern literature from eighteenth and nineteenth century German writers (Lessing and Herder) up to the central literary movements of the modernist era (represented in her study by Mallarmé and TS Eliot among others). A third book, Our Friend James Joyce (1958), although ostensibly co-authored by the Colums, was published after her death by her husband and is based on his reminiscences about Joyce and her earlier published work on him. Although a good deal remains to be explored about Colum’s contribution to Irish literary criticism, my focus here is on her memoir, Life and the Dream, which begins with her childhood in Sligo and concludes during the melancholy aftermath of the Second World War.
Colum and her husband left Ireland for America in 1914 and never returned to live in the country. She met and wrote about a breathtaking roll call of artists and other famous people of her day in Dublin, New York, London and Paris. But it is Yeats and Joyce who are, unsurprisingly, the key contemporary Irish writers for Colum – the pairing in the national tradition that exemplified both early and late modernism. She credits Yeats with encouraging her to become a critic. Although she had early literary ambitions of her own, she did not regard criticism as a less worthy vocation than being a “creative” writer. Indeed, Yeats had warned her that as a critic she might meet with even more sexist prejudice than as a writer, since men evidently regarded criticism and philosophy as exclusively “their own province”. Criticism also brought other challenges. Indeed, Colum suggested that it is “about the riskiest of all branches of the writing profession; it is very difficult; it demands a complicated equipment, a great deal of experience, not only of literature, but of life; it is none too well paid, and not so many readers know when it is first-rate.”
Colum fully acknowledged the importance of individual literary genius and innovation. But great literature also emerges out of specific intellectual, social and national contexts. Historians, philosophers and social thinkers had all contributed to the ferment of ideas that produced the romantic and modernist movements in the arts. Although most examples of writing in any genre are in fact parasitic “on other minds or modes”, she suggested that genuinely “creative” criticism should not be regarded as a lesser “stepchild and handmaiden to the arts”. Beginning with Aristotle, the highest literary criticism has “not merely an effect on the understanding and assessing of writing, but a continuous influence on the creation of literature”.
Given her experience of Dublin in the early years of the twentieth century, first as a student of literature and then as a teacher in Scoil Íde, one of the experimental schools founded by Padraic Pearse, it is unsurprising that Colum thereafter emphasised the connections between literature and broader social movements. Her coruscating account of the intellectual and social excitements provided by Dublin at that time surely also helps to explain why she valued dialogue and debate among writers and critics so highly over the course of her whole life. She had encountered the leading figures of the Irish Literary Revival at soirées hosted by – among others – the artist Sarah Purser and the physician, scientist and writer George Sigerson. A regular at the Abbey Theatre, Colum was present for the first performances of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World in 1907, which provoked riots in the theatre. She witnessed Yeats’s furious defence of the play from the stage. Her first notable published work, an essay about the first complete edition of Synge’s works, appeared in the inaugural number of The Irish Review in 1911. This journal, which she helped to found, did not have an exclusively literary focus and included writing on economics and politics. The editors (who included Thomas MacDonagh and Padraic Colum) declared their ambition to apply “Irish intelligence to the reconstruction of Irish life”.
Yeats was already a famous writer by the time Colum met him, whereas Joyce was in some regards a peer. From the mid-twentieth century, Joyce would have an unparalleled reputation as the most celebrated and influential modern writer in English. Yet in his lifetime he had needed and relied on the support of associates such as the Colums. But even Joyce took second place to Yeats. Colum admired Yeats uncritically. She described him in appearance as a “black Celt” – that is, a descendant of the supposedly oldest indigenous Irish race. She states that “in my early teens at boarding school, I was awakened by his poetry and plays from the half sleep, the almost wholly dream that is childhood”. Remembering her first sight of him in the National Library in Dublin, she declares: “I still think Yeats was the most remarkable person I have ever known – by many, many degrees the most remarkable.” She last saw him on her trip to Dublin in 1938, when his extraordinary energy was finally dimming. She comments that to the end Yeats was “no democrat” and believed in an elite of a “few trained and superior men”. His chief loyalty had indeed always been to secret or special groups or companies, from the Abbey Theatre to the mystical Order of the Golden Dawn. Nevertheless, Colum declared that, as a revered public figure and the father of two children born in his middle age, Yeats had enjoyed “not only a lucky but a happy life”.
Padraic Colum recalled Joyce as a brilliant, but shabby and penniless, young man. After Joyce had left UCD, Padraic advised him during his bitter disputes with the Irish publishing house Maunsel, which had refused to print Dubliners because the stories were “libellous”. Later, in Paris, Mary – as her own health permitted – cared for Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, who began to show signs of mental illness, later diagnosed as schizophrenia. When a disturbed Lucia stayed with the Colums, Mary shared a bed with her, pinning her nightdress to her own to prevent her doing any injury to herself. Joyce was indebted to her for such support. But he was also grateful for her professional help in introducing Ulysses to its early readers. Our appreciation of the novel has been enhanced by her emphasis on the deep impress it carries of the Irish Catholic education and culture that had shaped him as author and her as reader. Yet for all that they shared a common culture, she was sometimes at odds with him; an early draft of Finnegans Wake was, she told him, “outside literature”. Nevertheless, her husband assisted Joyce, whose eyesight was failing, with his painstaking labours on the Wake. He wrote an introduction to the first publication of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section in 1928. But the Colums’ final glimpse of Joyce, in sharp contrast with the farewell to Yeats, was of a sorrowful figure. Leaving Paris by train in 1938 – war with Germany seeming by then inevitable – they spotted him “stumbling along the platform with blind eyes” as he came to say his goodbyes. Joyce fled Paris with his family during the war but had to leave his daughter behind. He died after an operation in Switzerland early in 1941. “What will to live could a man have,” Colum wrote, “who had endured so much?”
In writing about Yeats and revivalist Dublin in the early sections of Life and the Dream, Colum revisits the most rewarding period of her own life. Yeats and George Moore, who both fashioned themselves as heroes of their own times, are also the most important literary autobiographers of the day. Yet Colum’s book is itself a distinguished contribution to a small but significant body of autobiographical writing by Irish women writers and activists, including Maud Gonne’s A Servant of the Queen (1938). She and Gonne, like Yeats and Moore, used autobiography not just as a miscellany of memories but as a mode of moulding the experience of belonging to a specific generation. As her remarks about being “awakened” by Yeats’s work from the “dream” of childhood suggest, Colum’s memoir records how an isolated girl in the west of Ireland was astounded to recognise aspects of her own hitherto inchoate experience in the new literature that she encountered. That experience of an initially isolated subjectivity realising itself through a newly-formed community is a standard trope of early modernist Irish writing. Colum recognised herself as a beneficiary of that process and contributed to the recognition of its historical significance.
“Dream” (as in the title of her memoir) is a favoured word for Colum. By this she indicates the world of the imagination and of political idealism. For her, as for Yeats, a great artist naturally aspires to reach a wide popular audience – one which could in turn derive spiritual benefit from the work (in her essay on Synge, Colum laments that this had not happened during the debacle of The Playboy). She pays little attention to criticisms of the Revival as either too elitist (and therefore out of touch with ordinary Irish people) or as too nationalist (subordinating art to merely political ends). Nor does she see any absolute break between the literature of the Revival and the more arcane work of Joyce. Through attending primarily to Irish experience, Joyce sought to represent the history of humanity in general. This involved radical experiments with language and style that eventually left most of his readers – and even fellow writers, such as Yeats – at a loss.
The notion of the “dream” has a particular weight in relation to Colum’s view of Joyce. She was well-versed in psychoanalytic theory and highlighted his attention to the operations of the unconscious mind in his fiction. Sigerson, himself a neurologist, told her about the experiments of his colleague Jean-Martin Charcot with “hysterics” at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. Colum later attended lectures by one of Charcot’s disciples at the Collège de France, during which the patients were exhibited on stage and encouraged to talk about their “visions”. She compared the discourse of Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses to the utterances of a patient on an analyst’s couch. Subsequently, in Finnegans Wake, Joyce aimed to represent an entire world of nocturnal or dream experience. It fell to some of his early critics to justify and explain these literary adventures to a broader readership. Colum belongs with some early Irish commentators on Joyce, including Elizabeth Bowen, who attempt to reclaim this work for an Irish tradition, however transmogrified.
Colum had already sensed the imminent end of the era in which her vision of an artistic community had been formed. She describes the shock of exiting the subway at Grand Central Station in New York on a sunny morning in May 1916 to see newspaper headlines announcing the executions of Pearse, MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke. With these deaths, and the later executions of others, including James Connolly and Roger Casement, “some part of our youth ended … our generation, or what remained of it, seemed to be like survivals of a past after this”. She was a member of several coteries of artists and writers in the United States and elsewhere although it was Dublin before the First World War that remained for her the ideal city of great art and high political aspiration. Her impressive career as a reviewer for leading journals such as Scribner’s Magazine, the New York Herald Tribune and The Dial represented a continuation of her early impulse to explain literature to a “public” or even a “people”. But this was itself an increasingly anachronistic pursuit. Her quarrel with Joyce over Finnegans Wake is a telling example of her view of the exorbitance of the demands the modernist writer believed he or she could make on the general reader.
In the 1930s, Colum foresaw no new wave of literary innovation that would solve the dilemmas left in the wake of modernism. Indeed, she concluded From These Roots by stating that the main lines of development in modern writing all had their origin in nineteenth century ideas. We could regard this pessimism as stemming from the inevitable exhaustion of a woman who had suffered through many of the upheavals and tragedies of the age. On the other hand, she may well have concurred with the later judgement of Franco Moretti that modernism was indeed “the last literary season of Western culture” – no further miracles could be expected.
Colum’s memoir, although published ten years after her critical book, sketches her formation as a commentator on literature. Life and the Dream explores her understanding of Irish culture and of her own identity as an Irish woman. It presents an especially vivid record of the years of her young adulthood, leading up to the Easter Rebellion in 1916.
On occasion, Colum is wryly amusing. She evidently relishes the discomfiture of Lord French, the viceroy in Ireland during the final years of British rule, when that “bewildered gentleman … driving through Dublin in state with all the trappings of the King’s deputy, would behold two beautiful middle-aged women making speeches to an insurrectionary populace”. He could not order their arrest “without scandal” because he had been an admirer of one – Gonne – and the other, Charlotte Despard (second only to Gonne in Colum’s estimation of the women of this period), was his sister. Colum was herself a member of Cuman na mBan, a paramilitary organisation of republican women, for a short period. She was a witness to the Howth gun-running – although she is rather unkind in her inclusion of details concerning the dowdy appearance and darned stockings of Mary Spring-Rice (one of the chief organisers of the expedition).
Colum delighted in speculation about national characteristics and “types” in Europe and the United States. Life and the Dream is full of memorable descriptions of human variation in appearance, food, dress, speech and manners. Free of racist bigotry, as is clear from her account of meeting African Americans for the first time during her voyage to New York in 1914, she did not altogether abjure the language of racial classification, standard in her time. However, she related such differences mainly to the effects of shared historical experience. She readily passed judgements on standards of education and culture in the various cities and countries she knew. She first lived in continental Europe as a schoolgirl for a short period in a German convent (where the future Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy was also a student). Notwithstanding her extensive knowledge of an emerging, newly confident contemporary American literature, she sympathised with Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, both of whom she met, who were drawn to Europe by their longing for “old cultures, long-developed civilizations, and the warm life of humanly fertilized soils”.
Like other cultural nationalists of her time, Colum supported Ireland’s claim to be numbered among these “old cultures” of Europe. She notes the impact of collectors and translators of Irish legends and poetry such as Augusta Gregory and Hyde on her generation. Of course, even for a woman from the west of Ireland – the Revival’s holy ground – these “traditional” works had to be rediscovered. For this to happen, she had first to leave home.
Life and the Dream opens not with Colum’s earliest memories but with her arrival at boarding school (St Louis in Monaghan) as an adolescent. The school is a thrilling new environment for a girl from a rather neglectful, male-dominated family: her mother, her beloved maternal grandmother (Catherine Gunning, to whom the book is dedicated), and an aunt who had then taken her into her own household, had all died when she was a child. She makes no reference to her father (a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary) or to her siblings in the book. Colum had read widely as a girl. On one occasion, a “visiting female relative” suggested that the child had been exposed to unsuitable literature. All the books in the house that she liked were put out of reach and little Mollie was offered Bible stories and Maria Edgeworth’s Early Lessons in their place. With the help of a dictionary, she instead attempted to “chew through” works by Kant and Burke that no one had thought to hide. And from the moment of her arrival at the convent she was deeply impressed by the mainly religious art and music to which she was introduced there.
Colum emphasised that both secondary and university education in Ireland placed an overwhelming emphasis on literature, languages and culture. While this system certainly produced “scholarly minds”, it was not, she suggests, in fact best suited to the needs of the country – offering an “old European” Catholic and aristocratic training to the middle classes. In her case, it meant that while London remained always a “foreign” city for her, Colum – like many other Irish people she knew – felt at ease in Paris. But it was some time before she began to connect this “European” consciousness with her past experience of warm and neighbourly relationships with the country people of Sligo. Crossing O’Connell Bridge for the first time on her arrival in Dublin for university, she glimpsed a sandwich board man carrying a notice for plays at the Abbey, including Yeats’s Kathleen Ni Houlihan and Synge’s Riders to the Sea. She was thrilled at the prospect of seeing works by living Irish writers on stage – and especially by the writer who was referred to by her elders in Sligo as “old Parson Yeats’ grandson” and whose poems mentioned local placenames like Innisfree, Moherabuie and Dromahair. She had travelled to Dublin to “step right into the Irish Revival”; later, she and her husband were warmly received in literary America as themselves representatives of that movement. No doubt this to some degree retrospectively coloured her own recollections of the west of Ireland of which she nevertheless gives a distinctive account in Life and the Dream. Those memories had become both her own and, through the prism of the Revival she witnessed and participated in, images of a European past.
Colum noted that not all Irish patriots were “social revolutionaries: outside their determination to free their country they are often conservative and even reactionary”. But a few had the “social-revolutionary as well as the national-revolutionary fervor”, including Gonne. In this, Colum contrasted her with Augusta Gregory, co-founder with Yeats of the Abbey. Colum praised Gregory as a folklorist and a dramatist and as a person who had departed from the “hereditary roles” granted to talented upper class women. But she also regarded her as a snob. The contrast between Gregory and Gonne was sharpened by the fact that both women had to some extent joined battle over the soul of Yeats. There was a considerably smaller gap in relation to religion and class between Colum and her family’s neighbours than would have been the case for many of the leaders of the cultural and political movements of the Revival. Despite this, Colum’s portrayal of the Irish people was perhaps influenced more by her faith in the notion of national character and her intimacy with the work of Yeats and Synge than by the social radicalism of Gonne or others that she nevertheless admired.
Colum described Dublin as the “eighteenth-century” capital of a “medieval” country. She claimed that her native Northwest was hardly touched by modernity – “life having gone on in much the same way for hundreds of years”. She notes that, even into her grandmother’s time, the heads of local Gaelic families were considered to be “princes” by the local people. But to some degree she downplays the colonial history that explains how English landlords, rather than Gaelic chieftains, became the principal landholders of the region. Although Colum accepted that country people took little enough interest in the literature of the Revival, she believed that the new social movements had helped to inspire a passion for national freedom in the demoralised population. Yet she also asserts that the Land War, the most significant conflict of the late nineteenth century in Ireland, was more or less resolved before she had become properly aware of it. After the power of the landlords had been broken, British rule in the district was, she suggests, “irresponsible but not really tyrannical”.
But there are dissonances in Colum’s account of Sligo. On the one hand, she testifies to the persistence of an archaic culture. She describes her friend Bartley, a neighbour from a mountain village, as a huge red-headed creature dressed in knee breeches, buckled shoes and a caubeen hat. Such people inhabited (to borrow one of her chapter titles) a world of “strolling musicians, ballad singers, traveling men”. Colum emphasises their courtesy and kindness. She shared their love of the countryside, horses, dogs, music and poetry. In return for Bartley’s stories about Finn Mac Cool and Cuchulainn, she impressed him by reading Yeats’s “The Wanderings of Oisin” aloud. She was accustomed to mediating between this community and the wider world – even as a child, her neighbours relied on her to read and answer emigrants’ letters sent home from America. Colum stated that, as faithful Catholics with a strong belief in the afterlife, the people generally had a “natural happiness and gaiety. I have heard of the Celtic melancholy, but I saw little of it.” Apart from natural mortality, the greatest misfortune was the departure of children for America. At a local landmark called the “Hill of Weeping”, young people turned to “bid farewell to the green fields, the little white houses, the sea, and the rambling roads they knew so well”. All this in fact bespeaks a social system not entirely consonant with Colum’s vision of a self-enclosed and in many ways idyllic community. There are other conflicting details; some aspects of popular Irish culture belie the characterisation of it as marked by a cheerful resilience. But we see in this how important it was for Colum to sustain – as much Irish writing of the time did – the tension between the “dream” and the everyday life. The dream itself is a possession of the common culture, it is part of the “hidden life” in which everyone shares, and it is not simply cancelled by acknowledgement of harsher realities.
After her grandmother’s funeral, Colum hears four old women chant the “eerie and unearthly keen”, or lament, for the dead woman. Their chant, delivered in Irish, represented a distinctly non-Christian paean to the old Gaelic aristocracy and to nature. It concludes:
Not the blood of the Sassanach was she but of the high line of the Gael – O’Rourkes of Breffni, O’Donnells of Tyrconnell, O’Kellys of Hymany, and a hundred fighting princes of the Gael.
The reapers will reap and the young lambs play and bleat, but never again shall your eyes see the harvest or the spring returning, generous and wellborn woman, cold is your rest. Ochone agus Ochone O!
And while Colum and her fellow students were transfixed by Hyde’s Love Songs of Connacht, she comments that it seemed incongruous that such a “Celtic” intensity of emotion should be the particular gift to modern literature of a country “where romantic love was … mocked at, where marriages were arranged and were even a sort of deliberate alliance between families”. Poems such as Hyde’s English-language version of “Ringleted youth of my love” represented an art of “the special expression of the women of the race we belonged to, women who were married to men whom they barely knew … but love was an aspiration of the heart and spirit to be expressed in beautiful words by people who had never handled a book except a prayer book.”
Like other writers of the Revival, Colum’s accounts of the people she grew up among betray a strong anthropological impulse – she records rather than intervenes. Here again there is a significant contrast with Gonne. In her memoir, A Servant of the Queen (the “queen” being Ireland), Gonne quotes a newspaper article by Yeats, who had reported in turn on one of Gonne’s speeches in Paris. She had declared that Ireland during the Famine was
heroic in her suffering. It seemed to me at evening, on those mountains of Ireland, so full of savage majesty, when the wind sighed over the pits of the famine … that I heard an avenging voice calling down on our oppressors the execration of men and the justice of God.
Gonne evidently considered that conditions during the Land War and its aftermath demanded heroism of a different kind. For example, she was quite content to exploit her own class privilege (including “the passport of [her] clothes”) in order to gain access to politicians, priests and others who she believed could help people threatened with eviction in Donegal (this in a district where men were sent to prison for the “theft” of seaweed to use as fertiliser). She witnessed a mother with a newborn baby being carried out of a cabin on a mattress in the rain by the “Emergency Men”, who then debated knocking down the gable wall with a battering ram, to prevent any possibility of shelter for the dispossessed family. Gonne arranged for the woman to stay in a room at her hotel. In pursuit of what she believed to be justice, Gonne was not reluctant to intervene in the everyday life of the community – for example, she befriended and conspired with some of the more radical priests. As Colum (who evidently was familiar with A Servant of the Queen) also reports in her own memoir, Gonne ransacked papal encyclicals and the works of Thomas Aquinas to find support for her view that it was not immoral for hungry tenants to steal from their landlords.
Colum took a more quietist attitude to the political and social upheavals in Ireland, especially after her own departure from the country. She laments the bitter quarrels among former comrades and even within families about the Anglo-Irish Treaty that had instituted the partition of the island. For instance, while Yeats became a Free State senator, his brother Jack, the celebrated painter, took the anti-Treaty side. But she does not offer any strong views of her own about the Treaty or the subsequent Civil War. The Colums’ first return to Ireland was delayed for eight years. While they were overjoyed finally to see the Irish tricolour flying over public buildings in Dublin, it was “not now the city Joyce celebrated in Ulysses” – the young men, as she puts it, were all writing constitutions instead of sonnets. On a later visit, Colum spotted the now elderly Gonne addressing a republican meeting on College Green – a “beautiful ruin” of a woman dressed in black, with veils floating about her head.
Nevertheless, in Colum’s account of her youth in Dublin, she states that books such as Hyde’s Love Songs had “set everybody on fire”. She describes how she and her friends learned many of the poems they contained – works which had themselves been passed down through oral tradition – by heart, in both English and Irish. Such vignettes underline the compelling importance for Colum both of dramatic performance (as at her grandmother’s funeral) and of the question of sexuality, especially in Irish culture.
These themes occasionally coincide, as in one striking incident from Colum’s schooldays recounted in the memoir. At the age of thirteen, newly liberated into education and the company of other young girls, Mollie’s excitement about the future was summed up by the opening lines of the Mass: Introibo al altare Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum (I will go onto the altar of God. To God who gives joy to my youth). In her secular interpretation, these words seemed to promise that life would “be full of every joy, including those mysterious delights of love that novels and poems spoke of”. In the chapel she once listened to a beautiful classmate sing a hymn as if it “were a mystical love song … as if she loved above all else to sing”. This girl, Finda, had expressed “a gorgeous dream of time or of something time would bring her before it brought her death”. It was a thrilling but also a haunting experience during the “morning of life”. The memory of Finda’s singing was like a “scar on [her] mind”. While Colum was too young to have witnessed Gonne’s famous performance in the title role of Kathleen Ni Houlihan (as an allegorical representation of “Mother Ireland”), she was thrilled by the “golden voices” of the actors Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh and Sarah Allgood in numerous other productions at the Abbey. In Paris, she listened to Joyce singing French, Italian and Irish love songs, including Yeats’s “Who goes with Fergus?” (which Stephen Dedalus sings to comfort his mother on her deathbed in Ulysses.) Colum remarks that Joyce’s “mysterious” voice was more emotionally expressive than those of any of the grand-opera tenors she had heard.
Colum presents herself throughout the memoir as a person of great common sense, who despite her difficult childhood had avoided becoming “neurotic”. Arguably, she ascribes a similar good fortune to Irish people in general. The image of Ireland as a place where “romance” (or sexuality) was severely and damagingly repressed was crucial to key controversies in Irish culture during the Revival and indeed much later in the independent Irish state. Despite the fact that Colum was herself possessed of a post-Freudian knowingness about human sexual instincts, she was prepared to accept that the Irish were simply remarkably “innocent” in such matters. She certainly did not share Joyce’s contempt for what he once called the “froglike and renunciatory sterility” of the Irish. Colum admired the unselfish devotion of the celibate nuns at school – even if they stinted on care for the body rather than just for the soul. She argues that Irish audiences hardly understood what exactly struck them as “improper” in Synge’s Playboy. She later also defended Joyce’s literary innovations, while appreciating that he had “done the unforgiveable thing in English-speaking Catholicism” by “writ[ing] freely about sex”. But at the same time, she did not altogether approve of Joyce’s gleeful and “sinister” reduction of love, during conversation with her, to “merely a temptation of nature in one’s youth” and she was not a fan of Molly Bloom’s candid monologue in Ulysses (which she called “an exhibition of the mind of a female gorilla”).
Colum stated that the nuns at school taught her not to draw attention to herself nor to be concerned about appearance or clothes – although on the very few occasions she mentions the figure she cut at the Abbey or at literary parties in America, the details are impressive. As a student, she dressed in the then fashionable “Celtic” manner, including a shawl embroidered with designs from the Book of Kells, fastened with a silver brooch in the shape of a harp; newly arrived in Chicago, her “second-best” evening dress, which had been made in Rathmines of Liberty satin, featured William Morris embroidery by Lily Yeats (the artist sister of the poet).
But readers of Colum’s memoir have noted her restraint in talking about her own emotional life too. The memoir discloses nothing about her private relationship with her husband or any other intimate associate. Padraic Colum’s proposal of marriage is presented as almost an accident, prompted by her distress at a forceful declaration from another suitor (generally identified as Thomas MacDonagh, although not named in her book). Other topics, such as her disappointment at not having children, are broached only in her private letters.
Of course, Colum’s reserve was conventional for the day. For example, Gonne’s account of her political alliance with the French Boulangist Lucien Millevoye makes no mention of the two children they had together – her daughter Iseult conceived on the grave of her son Georges. But more generally, there is little sense in Colum of revivalist Dublin as having been a place of bohemian sexual experimentation. If anything, Colum emphasises the remarkable propensity for drudgery and self-sacrifice of her activist friends when they worked together in Pearse’s school and elsewhere. She stated that they “had little of the pleasures of youth with its few years, except what Madame de Staël called ‘the pleasures of intellect and imagination’”.
Some commentators on Life and the Dream are dismayed at Colum’s repeated deflection of the reader’s attention away from her own subjective experience. Her friend, the critic Edmund Wilson, in fact praised this very feature of the book, suggesting in his review in The New Yorker that the absence of “pose” and solipsism was unusual in a memoir by a female author discussing her own career. Later readers such as Patricia Rimo observe that Colum instead projects aspects of herself onto others, especially artists and performers (as with her classmate’s singing at school). This may bespeak a pre-feminist reluctance to occupy a central place in an autobiography (as discussed, for example, by Margaret O’Callaghan in a recent essay on the place of this genre in twentieth century Irish women’s writing).
In any case, the persona Colum adopted was clearly helpful to her in the key and probably most successful mode in the memoir – that of portraiture. Here, as one reviewer noted, the reader is aware of the presence of “a wise and responsive nature” which is not itself the main object of investigation. Wilson suggests that Colum’s book benefits from being free of the literary rivalries that dominate Moore’s Hail and Farewell (1911) – a work which was, in his opinion, aimed at ridiculing other Irish artists of the day. He claims that Life and the Dream should be counted among “the classics of that period’s literary history”; indeed, “though it comes belatedly, [the book] really belongs to the ‘creative’ output of that literature itself”.
And so Colum summarises her life before 1914: she had got to know “all the men and women who made the Irish Literary Renaissance world-famous”. These included Yeats, Gregory, George Russell, Pearse, Moore, Hyde and Gonne as well as some popular writers who were not so well-remembered in later years. Colum recalls that Ethna Carbery, whose work “closely touched the experience of the people”, was perhaps the most widely read poet in Ireland at the time. Years later, sitting in a Paris café, she and Joyce were able to repeat verses by another poet, William Dara, “line by alternative line”.
Colum mainly recalls meetings with one of the men of 1916, Casement, that occurred outside Ireland. She first glimpsed him in a London restaurant, “a bearded, tanned, Castilian-looking man”. She quotes Stephen Gwynne’s description of Casement – then a British consular official – as “one of the finest-looking creatures I had ever seen, and his countenance had charm and distinction and high chivalry”. Colum notes that Casement had risked his life to expose atrocities on rubber plantations in Africa and South America, as well as to help “the typhoid-ridden under-fed people of the West of Ireland”. The Colums met him again in New York in the office of the Fenian John Devoy. On the last occasion they saw Casement (before his execution for the charge of treason in London made his career “public property and even part of history”), they ate ice cream together in a drugstore – “a strange treat for us”. It is Colum’s gift as a storyteller that the detail about the ice cream is as memorable and affecting as her descriptions of Casement’s face or voice. He warned them that they were being watched by a British spy standing at the counter.
While Colum’s formative years in Dublin were relatively few, she compresses several decades of experience in America and during trips to Europe into later chapters of the memoir. She knew JB Yeats (father of W.B.), John Quinn (patron of many modernist artists), Willa Cather, Harriet Munroe, Hart Crane, Eugene O’Neill, Robert Frost, Somerset Maugham and Amy Lowell. Settling down to work in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, she discovered that the helpful man sitting close to her was the historian Oswald Spengler . She is introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas, lover of Oscar Wilde, by Lady Ottoline Morell in London. She partied in newly-built “imitation European” mansions in Long Island filled, Great Gatsby-style, with old tapestries, portraits and furniture. In the house of Nicholas Brady of Manhasset, even the Irish yews had been “dug up full-grown and transplanted”. So the trees at least, she comments, were genuinely ancient.
Colum chatted in German with Richard Strauss and Albert Einstein in the home of Mr and Mrs Samuel Untermeyer in New York. During her next visit to Dublin, when Yeats was discussing the bearing of the theory of relativity on his mystical work A Vision, she “put a brake on his eloquence by telling him that Einstein had explained it all to me at a dinner party”. Leon Trotsky was once a dinner guest of a party of Russian revolutionaries at the Colums’ New York boarding house. One night at Fouquet’s on the Champs Elysées – Joyce’s favourite restaurant at the time and also the haunt of celebrities – they were seated with Joyce and his wife Nora next to Marlene Dietrich and the German novelist Erich Maria Remarque (author of All Quiet on the Western Front). Joyce told Dietrich that he had seen her in the film L’Ange Bleu. “‘Then monsieur’, she said, ‘you saw the best of me.’”
Despite her relishing of such glamorous moments, Colum’s memoir concludes in sadness. She records that “the great facts of the world of my mature years have been wars and destruction – they have crushed everything else out of sight”. She decries the “senseless, man-made inequalities” (economic, racial and sexual) that make a “farce” of democracy (by which she presumably means American democracy). Wilson suggests that, in addition, a sense of a lost personal vocation haunts Colum’s story. It would not have been possible for a woman of her talents and training to find “her place and her work” in the midst of “the bureaucracy [and] the censorship … of De Valera’s Ireland”. But neither, he states, were these things to be found in the “mechanized apartment-celled New York and commuter-inhabited Connecticut in which she afterwards tried to live”.
In some regards, Wilson may offer too bleak a judgement on Colum’s American career. After all, her memoir also records the elation of swapping the damp Georgian houses of Dublin for the dazzling sunshine and crowded streets of Manhattan. Compared with Ireland, the people were exquisitely dressed and groomed. On arrival, she had been delighted by the “modernness of everything” – the telephone in her hotel room, the slick machine-made furniture, and the magnificent newspapers. She would herself work mainly as a reviewer and literary journalist for American magazines and journals during the decades ahead. Among many others, she wrote for The Nation and The New Republic; she was the founder of the New York Times Review of Books poetry page in 1940, and literary editor and regular columnist in Forum between 1933 to 1941. Of course, by its nature, criticism in periodicals is ephemeral (although the importance of journals and magazines has more recently been reconsidered by historians of modernism – including readers of Colum such as Denise Ayo). But while this may have been an extension of her critical work in Dublin on The Irish Review and elsewhere, it is obviously not a career that could have been pursued in Irish conditions. For one thing, she would not have shared the scepticism about the Revival that became conventional in independent Ireland. The heroics of Yeats and his companies were no longer appreciated (or understood) amid the straitened realities of postcolonial survival and consolidation.
Perhaps there were other possibilities within her grasp in her mature life. But true to Yeats’s strictures against “propaganda” in literature, she disdained the idea of committed literature – as advocated by left-wing critics such as Wilson and others in the 1930s. She lamented that the importance and status of literature had declined in the postwar era . In Paris, critics and intellectuals were now investigating the changed condition of twentieth century writing, including Sartre in Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (1948). Simone de Beauvoir’s investigation of women in western culture, Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), which included sustained discussion of the fate of the “intellectual woman” in a sexist society, was published only two years after Colum’s memoir. Also working in Paris, Samuel Beckett – a Dubliner steeped in the legacies of the Abbey dramatists and of Joyce – ensured that Irish writing remained central to European postwar literary explorations of modernity.
But such new departures were not for Colum. She remained forever most deeply attached to the place that Joyce called that “old city built on a river with a woman’s name”. Ultimately, in Ireland, she was perhaps most nostalgic not for the “Gaelic” way of life that continued to decline (despite its spectacular literary “recovery”), nor with the emerging Catholic middle class to which she (like Joyce) belonged, but with the mainly Anglo-Irish Revival itself. Perhaps she understood that revivalist artists and their culture, bound up with a particular moment in late colonial history, could not endure. About Russell, Sigerson and Purser in particular, she asks:
Can it be that the strong life, the impassioned intellects that were theirs, have gone forever from the earth? It may be that they represented something that has gone out of the modern world. They were an island type and could never have been produced in a big country. Each in his or her own way had that which gives such character to a people – a warm and rooted provincialism.
They were without doubt “the most brilliant, the most affectionate and warmhearted people” she had known. But their likes were never to be there again. She “was forever afterwards disappointed with all the other life I knew”.
Colum was not a creative artist, a hostess in possession of a fine house, or a wealthy patron who could offer support to artists. Both she and her husband were from modest Irish backgrounds and made their way in the world solely through the trade of writing. But living by her wits, her conversation and her judgement, she enjoyed a minor but in some ways an astonishing role in some of the dramas of modernism’s last great season.
My thanks to Barra Ó Séaghdha, who recently recommended to me that I take a look at Life and the Dream. In 1986 I was the winner of the Mary Colum prize, founded by her widower Padraic Colum and awarded annually to a woman student in the English BA in University College Dublin. I was thrilled with the prize – at that time, a cheque for one thousand pounds handed over without fuss or ceremony at a counter in the college Administration Building. I have encountered several other winners over the years who were similarly encouraged by the award and grateful for the money.
Colum’s memoir makes no mention of many important facts about her own life, including the year of her birth. For additional biographical information, I have drawn here on Denise Ayo’s website “The Selected Works of Mary M. Colum” (marycolum.com) and Patricia Rimo’s unpublished PhD dissertation, “Mary Colum: Woman of Letters”, University of Delaware, 1982. A selection of Colum’s essays and reviews, including “The Confessions of James Joyce” (her review of Ulysses), has been made available by Ayo on the Mary Colum site. See also Ayo, “Mary Colum, Modernism, and Mass Media”, Journal of Modern Literature, vol 35 No 4 (2012), 107-29; Margaret O’Callaghan, “Women’s Political Autobiography in Independent Ireland”, in Liam Harte ed, A History of Irish Autobiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 133-48; and Taura Napier, “The Mosaic ‘I’: Mary Colum and Modern Irish Autobiography”, Irish University Review, vol 28 No 1 (1998), 37-55.
Emer Nolan is professor of English at Maynooth University.