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The Irish For: Where old ghosts meet - the story behind On Raglan Road

Irish poetry is a story often told from the perspective of the unrequited lover, but rarely from one who goes in to the affair knowing it is doomed, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

IN MAY THIS year, Ireland’s favourite folk song was revealed to be On Raglan Road, made famous by Luke Kelly’s unforgettable rendition.

The song is based on a poem by Patrick Kavanagh, but as with many of the Monaghan writer’s works, he had a tune in mind when composing it – a traditional melody called The Dawning of the Day.

The link between these two was mentioned to Luke Kelly one evening in The Bailey, when Kavanagh gave him permission to perform it.

Cultural resonance

But what is it that makes this song resonate with so many people?

Our image of Kavanagh as the older, bespectacled man is shaped by the RTÉ interviews he gave in the sixties and the statue of him by the Grand Canal.

But in 1936, when the Irish Press announced the publication of his first collection, they described a tall, tanned, dark-haired Ulsterman, still in his twenties (an incorrect detail, possibly of Kavanagh’s own concoction) and well-built from farm work.

The story of the impoverished farm worker with the soul of a writer who walked all the way from Inishkeen to Dublin with his manuscript under his oxter, hell-bent on getting published, resonated widely and established his reputation as an uncompromising man.

Kavanagh in a rut

Despite a flourish of attention upon his arrival on the scene and getting internationally published very quickly, by the early 1940s Kavanagh found himself in a rut.

He was excluded from a major collection of contemporary Irish poetry for his work being “no more Irish than Louis MacNeice or Cecil Day-Lewis”.

He was sued for libel by Oliver St John Gogarty on account of a passage in The Green Fool.

And he was getting better known for his cruelly witty film reviews than for his poetry.

“I saw her first and knew…”

It was around this time that he saw Hilda Moriarty, a medical student from An Daingean.

She was a lover of poetry with a creative streak and had wanted to study literature in college, but her father, a G.P., would not hear of it.

The elder Dr. Moriarty was a serious man with a deep sense of duty, held in the highest regard by his Gaeltacht patients; stories of him risking treacherous waters to attend to sick children on the Blasket were remembered by a community all too used to neglect.

He told his daughter that her intelligence gave her a duty to study something useful to the community, and that he wanted to leave her something more lasting than money.

Moriarty obediently enrolled in UCD but couldn’t abandon her creative urges completely.

She went to auditions, getting called for a screen test in Hollywood but losing out to someone called Maureen O’Hara. She read widely.

And she became the 1940s equivalent to what we now call an influencer, with boutiques around Dublin sending her dresses and jewellery in the expectation that her photograph in the papers would boost their sales. 

Meeting to talk about art

So when an established poet and film critic like Kavanagh was interested in meeting her to talk about books and art, she was only delighted.

They met regularly for the chats, with Kavanagh inviting criticism and suggestions from her on his unfinished work.

When he vented to her about his frustrations with publishing, she suggested he consider writing about something other than farms and muck sometime.

That’s when he told her he’d write a poem about her sometime.

Like most polite people, Moriarty mentioned that Kavanagh visit her if he was ever passing through her home town.

Unlike most people, Kavanagh actually took this invitation at face value and turned up in An Daingean one evening.

Unsurprisingly, her father was unimpressed by the impecunious, hard-drinking, confrontational poet and sent him on his way.  

Parental disapproval

This parental intervention wasn’t completely contrary to the daughter’s wishes: Hilda Moriarty was very fond of Kavanagh, but just not in that way.

Besides, she had recently attended a Munster rugby game where she caught the eye of one of the star players, who wrote her an eight-page letter in green ink telling her how much he liked her, what a great guy he was, and why they should definitely go out.

His name was Donogh O’Malley. They were married in 1947.

Kavanagh lost out to O’Malley

The final insult for Kavanagh was that O’Malley wasn’t threatened by him in the slightest and thought that it was gas that his wife knew a famous poet.

He even invited Kavanagh out to dinner with them while the heartbroken poet seethed with rage (but not so much rage that he’d turn out some free drinks).

In their conversations, O’Malley was impressed by Kavanagh’s intelligence and moved to think of how unfair it was that children born in the North would have access to free secondary school education but, mere miles across the border, children with his gifts would not.  

Years later, in 1967, Donogh O’Malley was the Minister who introduced free secondary school education in the Republic.

He and Kavanagh both died that year.

Widowed with two children, Hilda returned to medicine, specialising in psychiatry where her fascination with the mind dovetailed with her vocation.

Irish poetry is a story often told from the perspective of the unrequited lover, but rarely from one who goes in to the affair knowing it is doomed (“let grief be a fallen leaf”) and leaves with no ill will (“my reason must allow that I…”) for the other.


About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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