24 August 2016

A walk along the enchanted way
where old ghosts and poets meet

The Mexican Embassy on Raglan Road, where Patrick Kavanagh once lived (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

When I was writing some days ago about Elgin Road and the architectural heritage of the streets around Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Ballsbridge, I confused the Duke of Wellington’s generals and regiments at the Battle of Waterloo, who gave their name to streets such as Wellington Road and Waterloo Road, and the generals and regiments in the Crimean War and military campaigns in India in the mid-19th century who also gave their names to streets in the area.

One of the streets in Ballsbridge associated with names from the Crimean War is Raglan Road, which runs between Pembroke Road and Clyde Road. This street was laid out in 1857, when peace was being concluded at the end of the Crimean War. It was named in honour of Fitzroy Somerset (1788–1855), Lord Raglan, who was the first Commander-in-Chief in the Crimean War and a former de-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington. Raglan was the general responsible for the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade.

Nearby, Elgin Road and Clyde Road, which enclose the grounds of Saint Bartholomew’s Church, were laid out in 1863–1864. These names recall James Bruce (1811-1863), 8th Earl of Elgin, and Colin Campbell (1792-1863), 1st Lord Clyde. Clyde fought in the Peninsular War and the War of 1812. He commanded the Highland Brigade at the Battle of Alma and with his ‘thin red line’ he repulsed the Russian attack on Balaclava in the Crimean War. Clyde fought in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Elgin was the Viceroy of India (1862-1863), and both generals died in 1863.

One Sunday morning earlier this month, between two celebrations of the Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, I took a quiet break in the stillness of the morning quiet, and found myself rambling on Raglan Road, the street that inspired one of the best-known poems by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967):

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 century, 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.

The news houses built from the 1850s on, including those on Raglan Road, stood a little further back from the street and had larger gardens, and many are now listed building. In more recent years, Raglan Road has become one of Dublin’s most exclusive residential roads in Dublin, 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 the poet 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.’

On an early Sunday morning earlier this month, 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 70 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 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-years 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.

But No 19 Raglan Road is also associated with another story of unrequited love too. Some years ago, on a walking history tour of Ballsbridge organised by the Ballsbridge, Donnybrook and Sandymount Historical Society, John Holohan recalled how another resident of No 19 Raglan Road in the 1940s was Lelia Cremins, who brought an action for breach of promise of marriage, the respondent being the Marquis de Malacrida.

Twenty years after Patrik Kavanagh wrote his poem, in 1966, 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.

The earlier song Fáinne Geal an Lae was first published by Edward Walsh (1805-1850) in 1847 in Irish Popular Songs, and was later translated into English as ‘The Dawning of the Day’ and was published by Patrick Weston Joyce in 1873.

Given the similarity in themes and the use of the phrase ‘dawning of the day’ in both ‘On Raglan Road’ and the song, it is likely from the beginning that Kavanagh imagined the pairing of verse and tune.

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 25 years ago in 1991 in Saint Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin.

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the background on this haunting song. Excellent