She was one of the most beautiful women in Dublin; fashion designers sought her out to wear their creations. She could often be seen strolling along Grafton Street or sitting in its more fashionable cafes attended by her many admirers. Intelligent, vivacious, a medical student, the world lay at her feet.
He was eighteen years her senior, a crotchety character at best, often enough a mean drunk. A small farmer he had turned his back on the stony grey soil of Cavan and walked to Dublin with a view to becoming a poet.
He fell hard for Hilda Moriarty the dark haired beauty who loved the poems but not the man. He became a nuisance, showing up uninvited and behaving badly.
She married a dashing young politician and broke the poet’s heart. But his unrequited passion spawned one of the great love songs – Raglan Road.
Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry has aged well; it often captures a lost rural Ireland tinged with violence and mystery. Like the poet himself, this landscape is unruly and unpredictable.
One can imagine the young woman being flattered by the poet’s attention while at the same time embarrassed, and even frightened, by the intensity of his passion. And yet, there is a gentility and acceptance of the price of love in these lines that also give us an idea of Hilda Moriarty’s dangerous allure.
On Raglan Road of an autumn day
I saw her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare
That I might someday rue
I saw the danger and I passed
Along the enchanted way
And I said “Let grief be a falling leaf
At the dawning of the day.
Kavanagh is often compared unfavorably with Yeats – too parochial, not universal enough – but Yeats never fulfilled his ambition to write the lyrics of a great song. He once said, “Poetry should be as cold and passionate as the dawn.” And perhaps Yeats’ words are too finely calibrated, so that when a composer seeks to do them justice, the end result is off kilter, invariably mawkish and melodramatic.
Kavanagh’s lyrics are more pliable and natural as befits a man used to saving hay. To my ear, most interpretations of Raglan Road are over-sentimental, yet I’m always moved, no matter how limpid the rendering. The song is damn nigh indestructible; still the hint of bitterness that pervades Raglan Road is very rarely explored so the true potential of the piece usually goes unrealized.
The greatest version is by Luke Kelly of the Dubliners who delivers the song in a powerfully stark voice; as befits an acolyte of Ewan McColl who demanded that his students find the inner core of a song and then get out of the way of its message.
Kavanagh gave Kelly the words while both were drinking in The Bailey in 1966. He instructed the young singer to set the verses to the melody of Fáinne Geal an Lae (The Dawning of the Day).
Kelly was awestruck when he matched words and music to discover a masterpiece. It became his signature song, though it has been suggested that it eventually broke his heart for as the Dubliners’ popularity mushroomed their audiences preferred the bawdiness of Seven Drunken Nights to Luke’s sensitive interpretation of Raglan Road.
Tragedy followed Hilda too. Her husband - Fianna Fail minister, Donagh O’Malley - died at an early age leaving her with two children and never achieving the office of Taoiseach as many expected.
She outlived Kavanagh also but never forgot his unrequited unruly love. She sent a wreath of red roses to his funeral. Her beauty had faded by then. But she did not need a mirror to summon up her youth or the fragility of love and life; the poet had already done that for her.
On a quiet street where old ghosts meet
I see her walking now
And away from me so hurriedly
My reason must allow
That I had loved, not as I should
A creature made of clay,
When the angel woos the clay, he’ll lose
His wings at the dawn of day.