An Irishman’s Diary on Mary Maguire Colum, suffragette and founder of Irish Review

She played a leading role in the Irish Literary Revival alongside leading figures such as WB Yeats, Lady Gregory, George Russell (AE), Edward Martyn and Douglas Hyde

A portrait of  Mary Colum by George Russell  was presented  by Padraic Colum to the Sligo Museum Committee. Photograph: The Irish Times

A portrait of Mary Colum by George Russell was presented by Padraic Colum to the Sligo Museum Committee. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The young woman was confronted by one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising and he told her that it was her destiny to marry him and that was that. Years later, she recalled that this close friend of hers made his proposal of marriage in what she called, “a cave-man manner”.

Seventy years ago this year, the young woman who had been to the fore in the Irish Literary Revival published her life’s story, Life and the Dream. One noted American academic called it “one of the most forthright and powerful proto-feminist autobiographies of the twentieth century”.

She was Sligo-born Mary Maguire Colum, wife of poet, playwright and novelist, Padraic Colum. Mary played a leading role in the Irish Literary Revival alongside leading figures that included WB Yeats, Lady Gregory, George Russell (AE), Edward Martyn and Douglas Hyde.

Mary was a friend and colleague of Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett in the movement for national independence. She was also a committee member of the women’s organisation founded in April 1914 that became Cumann na mBan.

She was a suffragette, and in 1911, founder member and critic in chief of the Irish Review, the major publication of Irish Literature, Art and Science of the time. Sadly, she and her remarkable autobiography have been neglected, and an opportunity to mark her passing 60 years ago this year and the book’s publishing 70 years ago have passed largely unnoticed.

Mary was a very lovely young woman, and was described as having “a cascade of beautiful red hair”. That, along with her intelligence, her energy, her talent, and beauty, meant that when she was single, she had many suitors.

One aggressive suitor would not take no for an answer, she recalled.

“I did not have any taste for exchanging the independent and interesting life I was living for puttering around a kitchen, planning meals, hanging curtains, and so on, and I let my young friends know my sentiments about this. One of them, however, declined to listen to me and kept assuring me that he was the person Heaven had destined me to marry and I could not escape my fate.”

Mary continued to refuse him politely.

“But he made one final determined effort,” she recalled, “before dropping me. He called at my little flat, armed with an engagement ring, and told me in a very cave-man manner that he had arranged everything, that I was to marry him on a certain date in a certain church, and that I had better accept my destiny.”

Needless to say, Mary was frightened and even intimidated.

“The argument that ensued,” she said, “reduced me to a state of panic such as I had never known, for I was afraid I might be unable to hold out, especially as he said I had encouraged him and ought to have some sense of responsibility about it. But I managed to be strong-minded, and the harassing interview ended with tears on both sides, with his throwing the ring into the fire and leaving in a high state of emotion.”

Enter another friend shortly afterwards, who consoles the damsel in distress, and offers a quick solution to her problems. In a manner less caveman-like, but still unconventional and none too chivalrous, he says she can marry him instead. This is what Mary recalls:

“I was stretched out in a condition of copious weeping when, some minutes later, Padraic Colum called. Tearfully, I told him of my ordeal; the ring was still lying unconsumed in a corner of the grate; he fished it out with a tongs, left it on the hearthstone to cool so that it could be mailed back. Then he settled himself gravely in an armchair and proceeded to lecture me.”

“I think,” said he, “that to save yourself trouble, you should marry me. Then these fellows will all leave you alone and you won’t have to go through any more of these scenes.”

“He pursued this train of reasoning,” Mary remembered, “and eventually I dried my eyes and said, ‘All right, Colum; maybe that would be best’.”

And who was the spurned suitor with the caveman approach who threw the ring into the fire? None other than Thomas MacDonagh, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. He married Muriel Gifford, sister of Grace, who married another 1916 leader, Joseph Mary Plunkett, just hours before his execution.

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