Padraic Colum: balladeer, poet, and cultural mentor
Life & Style

Padraic Colum: balladeer, poet, and cultural mentor

Padraic Colum was born on December 8, 1881, and died fifty years ago in 1972. MAL ROGERS looks back at his life, and considers his best known work She Moved Through the fair.


Sinead O'Connor's almost transcendental interpretation of She Moved Through The Fair was one of the highlights in the film Michael Collins. Her sepulchral tones as the death of Collins is announced gave an ethereal atmosphere to the scene, and in the process brought the song to an even wider audience than it had hitherto enjoyed.

Most people on first hearing She Moved Through the Fair assume it to be a quintessentially Irish traditional song of great antiquity, given its haunting modal melody and rhythmic base. However, although based in the mists of the past, it is largely a twentieth century creation.

Next week sees the anniversary of the birth of Padraic Colum, who, along with Herbert Hughes, was largely responsible for the song, one of the best loved of Irish ballads.

Colum was born Patrick Collumb in Longford in 1881, where his father was the workhouse master. At seventeen he became a clerk in the Irish Railway Clearing House in Dublin, but left in 1904 determined to make a living through writing. His first poems appeared in The United Irishman, edited by Arthur Griffith. The Saxon Shillin' (1902) won a competition for a play to discourage young Irishmen from joining the British army.

Colum was also something of an actor, performing with the new Irish National Theatre Society. However after his play Broken Soil was staged in 1903, he concentrated on writing. He was one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre, and his dramas The Land and Thomas Muskerry were staged there. However his plays largely failed to live up to his early promise, and it was as a poet that Colum was to make his name.

His first book of verse, Wild Earth, appeared in 1907, with lyric poems like The Plougher, A Drover and the famous An Old Woman of the Roads.

He married Molly Maguire in 1912, and having barely enough money to make ends meet the Colums sailed to America in 1914, where they were welcomed into New York literary circles.

It was in America, in 1916, that Colum came up with his greatest work She Moved Through the Fair.

Although many a record sleeve copyright notice describes the song as "traditional", the song was largely the work of Colum and a Belfast man called Herbert Hughes — whose son Spike Hughes is considered by many to have been the first jazz composer in these islands.

Colum got the idea for the words from an Irish traditional piece, collected in Donegal in 1909. He reworked the words, adding some verses of his own. The tune by Hughes was similarly based on an old Gaelic melody.

According to Ossian's Folksongs and Ballads Popular in Ireland - Volume " the tune dates back to "medieval times" — although musicologists have cast doubt on this claim. Whatever the exact origins of the melody, the words and melody melded together perfectly to produce one of the most enduring songs of the 20th century.

Colum lived variously in America, Ireland, France and Hawaii until his death in a Connecticut nursing home at the age of ninety-one. Although living far from his native home he remained fascinated by Irish culture and folklore, and even came up with a novel idea to explain St. Patrick and the business with snakes. According to Padraic it was all a Viking misunderstanding. The old Norse word for ‘toad’ was ‘paud’, and ‘banish’ was ‘rig’ so when they heard the word 'Paudrig' or "Padraig' they assumed the man of the legend was responsible for the absence of slithery things.


She moved through the fair — last verse


Last night she came to me,

My dead love came in

So softly she came

That her feet made no din

As she laid her hand on me

And this she did say

It will not be long, love,

'Til our wedding day