26 March 2023

On a quiet street where
old ghosts and poets meet
along the enchanted way

‘On Grafton Street … we tripped lightly along the ledge’ … two pints on the ledge in McDaid’s in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Two of us spent two days in Dublin last week while I was researching a chapter for a book due for publication later this year.

We stayed in Rathmines while I spent my two days of research working in the Church of Ireland library (the RCB Library) in Rathgar, just a 30-minute walk away, and the public library in Rathmines.

Although it was a very short, quick return visit, I had breakfast with an old friend in Churchtown, lunch in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute where I was on the academic staff for 15 years, strolled by banks of the River Dodder in Rathgar, and visited my older brother in Rathmines and the house on Beechwood Avenue in Ranelagh where my grandfather and great-grandfather had lived.

One evening, after dinner in Forno 500 in Dame Street, two of us strolled through Dublin in the night air, through Temple Bar, by the Ha’penny Bridge and the River Liffey, into Trinity College, where I was an adjunct assistant professor until 2017, and then along Grafton Street, before stopping off in McDaid’s for a late-night drink beneath the portraits of an array of Irish writers, including James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey and Patrick Kavanagh.

We caught a bus from Redmond’s Hill back to Rathmines, discussing why we preferred one or other recording the poem ‘On Raglan Road’ by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) – Charlotte’s choice is Luke Kelly, mine is Ronnie Drew. But our other nominees included Sinead O’Connor and Van Morrison.

‘On Grafton Street … where old ghosts meet’ … portraits of Irish writers on the wall in McDaid’s on Harry Street, including Patrick Kavanagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

In the past, when I occasionally celebrated the Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, I would take a quiet break in the stillness of the morning, and stroll through the neighbouring streets in Ballsbridge, including Herbert Park, Waterloo Road, Wellington Road, Pembroke Road, Elgin Road, Clyde Road and Raglan Road, the street that inspired the poem by Patrick Kavanagh:

On Raglan Road on an Autumn day, I saw her first and knew
that her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue …

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Victorian and Edwardian houses on Raglan Road and the surrounding streets in the Pembroke township and Pembroke estate became the new residential homes of people who had lived previously in the Georgian squares of Dublin, such as Fitzwilliam Square and Merrion Square.

In more recent years, Raglan Road has become one of Dublin’s most exclusive residential streets, with some of the most expensive houses on sale in Ireland. Recent residents of Raglan Road have included the billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien, and the road is also home to several ambassadors, including the Turkish and Belgian ambassadors, as well as the Mexican Embassy.

The Mexican Embassy at No 19 Raglan Road was the home of Patrick Kavanagh in 1940-1943. It was Mrs Kenny’s boarding house, and he paid 10 shillings a week in rent. Before that, he had lived nearby on 62 Pembroke Road, but his poetic genius is irreversibly linked with Raglan Road, and his best-known poem, ‘On Raglan Road.’

During those early Sunday morning strolls, as I walked along ‘the enchanted way’ that is wide, tree-lined Raglan Road, it was easy to imagine Kavanagh’s ‘Quiet street where old ghosts meet’:

On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew.
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw danger, yet I walked along enchanted way.
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at dawning of day.

The poem was first published under the title ‘Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away’ in The Irish Press almost 80 years ago on 3 October 1946. But everyone at the time knew that Kavanagh’s poem was about Dr Hilda Moriarty from Dingle, Co Kerry.

Patrick Kavanagh met the beautiful, dark-haired Hilda Moriarty in 1944. She was a medical student at University College Dublin and was only in Dublin a few months, but she became one of most celebrated beauties of her time. She already knew Kavanagh’s poetry and writings; she was 22 and he was 40.

The penniless poet loved her, but there was an 18-year gap. She was flattered, but she did not reciprocate. When Hilda went home to Dingle for Christmas 1944, Kavanagh followed her but was not welcome in the Moriarty home. She was the young and beautiful daughter of the local doctor; he was a middle-aged, out-of-work journalist and the son of a small farmer. Kavanagh stayed at Kruger Kavanagh’s guesthouse in Dunquin and paid for his stay by writing an article on ‘My Christmas in Kerry’ in The Irish Press.

Back in Dublin, they met on-and-off throughout 1945. But eventually Hilda rejected him and in August 1947 she would marry Donogh O’Malley (1921-1968), later the Fianna Fail Minister for Education.

In the meantime, ‘Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away’ was published in The Irish Press on 3 October 1946. Patrick’s brother, Peter Kavanagh, said that ‘it was written about Patrick’s girlfriend Hilda, but to avoid embarrassment he used the name of my girlfriend in the title.’ A meaningless line in this edition, Synthetic sighs and fish-dim eyes and all death’s loud display, was later replaced with The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay.

Kavanagh celebrated this unrequited love with a poem he dreamed of setting to the Irish traditional air, The Dawning of the Day (Fáinne Geal an Lae).

In the poem, the writer recalls a love affair that he had with a young woman while walking on a ‘quiet street.’ Although the speaker knew that he would risk being hurt if he initiated a relationship, he did so anyway:

I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

Twenty years after Patrick Kavanagh wrote his poem, the Dubliners were playing one evening in 1966 in the Bailey in Duke Street, off Grafton Street, the other Dublin street named in this poem. On that evening, Patrick Kavanagh asked Luke Kelly of the Dubliners if he could adapt ‘On Raglan Road.’ Naturally, Luke Kelly chose the air of Fáinne Geal an Lae … and so was born a much-loved Irish song.

A year after his poem became part of the Dubliners’ repertoire, Patrick Kavanagh married his long-term companion Katherine Barry Moloney in April 1967 and they lived on Waterloo Road. He died a few months later, on 30 November 1967, in a Dublin nursing home. Hilda’s husband, Donogh O’Malley, died some weeks later on 10 March 1968.

In an interview with RTÉ in 1974, the writer Benedict Kiely recalled Kavanagh trying out the paired verse and tune for him soon after writing it.

Dr Hilda O’Malley was interviewed by RTÉ in 1987 for a documentary about Kavanagh, Gentle Tiger. In the interview, she said one of the main reasons for the failure of their relationship was that there was a wide age gap between them.

She recalled how ‘On Raglan Road’ was written by Kavanagh. He had described himself as the peasant poet but she was not impressed and teased him for writing about mundane things such as vegetables. She said he should write about something else so he agreed to do so. According to Dr Moriarty, he then went away and wrote ‘On Raglan Road.’

Dr Hilda O’Malley died in 1991 in Saint Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin.

Before leaving Dublin at the end of last week’s short visit, we returned to Grafton Street, and had coffee beneath the Harry Clarke windows in Bewley’s. As we headed back to the airport that evening, we were still discussing Patrick Kavanagh’s unrequited love and the competing merits of the different recordings of ‘On Raglan Road.’

‘Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge’ … the Ha’penny Bridge at night in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

On Raglan Road, by Patrick Kavanagh

On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.

I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that’s known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May.

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay –
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.

The Mexican Embassy on Raglan Road, where Patrick Kavanagh once lived (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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