Colum, Mary Gunning (1884–1957)

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Colum, Mary Gunning (1884–1957)

Irish-born American author who was a highly regarded literary critic in New York in the 1920s. Name variations: Molly Colum. Born Mary Catherine Maguire in Ireland in 1884 (some sources cite 1887); died in New York City on October 22, 1957; daughter of Charles Maguire and Maria (Gunning) Maguire; married Padraic Colum in 1912; children, none. Immigrated to U.S. (1914).

Irish-born Mary Gunning Colum was both a participant in, and witness to, some of the most important and exciting literary events of the first half of the 20th century. Born in 1884 as Mary Catherine Maguire, she was soon drawn into the intellectual and political turmoil that convulsed Ireland in the first years of the 20th century. A Gaelic cultural Renaissance went hand in hand with increasingly vehement demands for political freedom from Great Britain, and a youthful Mary Maguire found the city of Dublin during these years to be a fascinating place in which ideas were argued with energy; brilliant new poems, plays and novels appeared virtually every week; and life in general was exciting and full of surprises.

While still a student at University College, Dublin, she moved with confidence in the Irish capital's literary circles, meeting—and sometimes sparring with—such emerging giants as William Butler Yeats, A.E. (George William Russell) and James Joyce. Decades later, when Mary Maguire had become Mary Colum and had established herself as one of the best critics in the United States, she noted that critics were "best developed during their formative period when they are surrounded by writers, saturated in literature, rocked and dandled to its sounds and syllables from their earliest years, as composers have to be rocked and dandled to the sounds of music."

In 1912, Mary Maguire married Padraic Colum, a struggling poet and playwright who was associated with Yeats and Lady (Augusta) Gregory in their efforts to create a national stage tradition at Dublin's recently founded Abbey Theater. Mary wrote articles and reviews, but since these earned little money, she taught at St. Enda's, a school operated by a fervent Irish nationalist, Padraic Pearse, who was executed by the British for being a leader of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Padraic Colum was not so much a political firebrand as a dreamy, impractical poet with poor financial prospects, but his bride "Molly" loved him and had faith in the future. Both she and her husband were passionately involved in the Dublin literary scene and both were founders of The Irish Review, a journal that quickly became a major voice in Irish intellectual life.

In 1914, the Colums sailed for the United States, leaving behind a European continent that was plunging into the madness of fratricidal warfare, with Ireland itself on the brink of open insurrection against the hated British overlords. The Colums found America exhilarating from the day of their arrival, and they brimmed with ideas about their future careers. Fortunately what all immigrants found to be a difficult time of adjustment was made considerably less painful in their case by the fact that they were able to spend their first months living with a relative in Pittsburgh. Mary took a teaching job that brought in a modest but steady income, while Padraic luckily got a commission from the Carnegie Institute to help in the production of several Irish plays. From the start of their arrival in the United States, their financial situation was better than it had been in Ireland. The Colums yearned for broader horizons and moved to New York City, where Mary continued to teach for a while. Soon, however, her desire to put words on paper became a dominant goal, and she found a job writing editorials for the trade journal Women's Wear.

During the next years, Mary and Padraic Colum expanded their circle of friendships. In the summers of 1917 and 1918, they spent several months at the MacDowell Colony in upstate New York where they met a number of leading writers of the day, including Edwin Arlington Robinson, DuBose Heyward, and Elinor Wylie . The years after World War I saw the careers of both Mary and Padraic Colum grow and prosper. While he wrote many poems of note and produced a highly popular series of books on legends and mythology, she contributed articles to the leading American literary journals, including Scribner's, Saturday Review, The Nation, The New Republic, and the Yale Review. Her reputation as an expert on modern literature made her one of the regular reviewers for The New York Times, and her assessments were often reprinted in other journals.

From 1933 to 1940, Mary Colum wielded considerable power in American literary life through her monthly contributions to Forum magazine. By the late 1930s, she was regarded as one of the leading critics in the United States. Recognition of her work during these years included two Guggenheim fellowships, as well as awards from Georgetown University and the American Institute of Arts and Letters.

Despite her busy schedule, Colum was able in 1937 to publish From these Roots, a sweeping interpretation of modern literature that received generally high marks from her fellow critics. During the next years, she worked on her autobiography, Life and the Dream, which received enthusiastic reviews at the time of its publication in 1947. Carl van Doren described it as "the best chronicle I know of an individual Irish contribution to the intellectual life of America." Edmund Wilson praised Colum for having presented a superb portrait of Irish writers, "the nobility and the fire of the movement, and her pictures of its personalities have… humanity and… dignity."

In the mid-1950s, Mary decided to work with her husband on a collaborative project, a study of James Joyce as they had known him. It was while working on this book that Mary Colum died suddenly at her desk on October 22, 1957. It was a classic writer's death, ending literally in mid-sentence. Fortunately the manuscript had been almost completed at the time, and it appeared in print the year after her death as Our Friend James Joyce.

Some years before his death, Padraic Colum told an interviewer that he never knew, given his poverty and poor prospects in 1912, why "Molly ever married me." It was clear that, both as fellow writers as well as husband and wife, they had been a superb team. On one occasion in the 1920s, when both were in Hawaii to start one of his writing projects, he suddenly suffered a major loss of confidence and decided to "slip off to Australia." Fortunately Molly was there to save the day, telling Padraic in no uncertain terms, "Now's the time to get your self-confidence…. No, you are not going to Australia. You'll have to stay here." Recalling the incident many decades later, Padraic Colum said: "So I did [stay] and worked it out." Padraic Colum died in Enfield, Connecticut, on January 11, 1972, at the age of 90.


Bowen, Zack R. "Ninety Years in Retrospect: Excerpts from Interviews with Padraic Colum," in Journal of Irish Literature. Vol. 2, no. 1. January 1973, pp. 14–34.

——. Padraic Colum: A Biographical-Critical Introduction. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.

Colum, Mary. From these Roots: The Ideas that Have Made Modern Literature. NY: Scribner, 1937.

——. Life and the Dream. Rev. ed. Chester Springs, PA: Dufour Editions, 1966:

——, and Padraic Colum. Our Friend James Joyce. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958.

Hoehn, Matthew, ed. Catholic Authors: Contemporary Biographical Sketches 1930–1947. Newark, NJ: St. Mary's Abbey, 1948.

"Mary Colum Dies; A Literary Critic," in The New York Times. October 23, 1957, p. 33.

Rimo, Patricia A. "Mollie Colum and Her Circle," in Irish Literary Supplement. Fall 1985, p. 26.

Sternlicht, Sanford. Padraic Colum. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

John Haag , University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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