Ireland’s Most Popular Song Is of Course About a Lost Love
Patrick Kavanagh wrote a poem about his unrequited love that became the popular song “On Raglan Road,” which in turn helped make Kavanagh perhaps Ireland’s most famous poet.
Patrick Kavanagh would have loved it. In 2002, Russell Crowe was in London to give a tribute to receive a BAFTA award for A Beautiful Mind. In his acceptance speech, Crowe quoted a four-line poem, “Sanctity,” by the Irish poet:
To be a poet and not know the trade,
To be a lover and repel all women;
Twin ironies by which great saints are made,
The agonizing pincer-jaws of heaven.
The part of Crowe’s speech in which he read the poem was cut from the broadcast. Crowe threw a fit. At the after-party, he grabbed the show’s director and slammed him against a wall, shouting, “I’ll see that you never work in Hollywood!”
Why the poem was cut remains unclear, but on a talk show few years later, Crowe offered his own explanation: “They told me you can’t read Patrick Kavanagh on the BBC.” (Crowe also said he was giving a tribute to Richard Harris when he quoted the poem, but we’ll stick with the original reports.)
The serendipitous result was that poetry lovers all over the world were spurred to seek out the work of a man they had known, if at all, as the author of Ireland’s most famous song of unrequited love, “On Raglan Road.” The irony would have brought a momentary smile to the solemn face of Kavanagh’s life-size bronze statue, created by the sculptor John Col, seated on a park bench by the canal in the Ballsbridge area of Dublin. Irish novelist John Banville called the statue “raffish and at the same time distinctly eerie”—some would say an apt description of Kavanagh in life.
There’s another bench in Dublin dedicated to Kavanagh near the towpath below the Baggett Street Bridge. There is no statue, but lines from the poet’s work are inscribed in the stone. “Somehow,” Banville writes in Time Pieces, A Dublin Memoir, “one can guess which bench Kavanagh would have preferred.”
Kavanagh could well lay claim to being the most popular of Irish poets. In the decades since his death in 1967, his image and influence have become more pervasive in both high and popular culture than that of Ireland’s Nobel Prize laureates, W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney—neither of whom had a hospital ward named in their honor—and tributes to him are found in unexpected places across Dublin.
Kavanagh lived most of his life in near poverty and his friends in Dublin would say seldom had two Irish pound notes in his pocket, with, an acquaintance noted, “little more to his name than a tinker.” One wonders what he would think of his becoming a light industry.
— In 1955, Kavanagh had a lung removed at St. James Hospital. One of his most famous poems, “The Hospital,” begins with the memorable lines,
A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row…
The suite of rooms became the Patrick Kavanagh Ward.
— In 2004, Tom O’Brien’s play On Raglan Road, about Kavanagh and his doomed love affair with the beautiful young Dublin medical student Hilda Moriarity, made its debut at the Irish Centre in London.
— In December, listening to Kavanagh’s A Christmas Childhood on the radio or internet has become as much of a tradition as listening to Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
— The Patrick Kavanagh Centre near his childhood home in Inniskeen, County Monaghan in northwest Ireland, sponsors plays and performances and awards a 1000 pound Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award annually. The Centre, which is open five days a week, features interactive displays of Kavanagh's life and sponsors programs on Irish literature, one of which is the Patrick Kavanagh Weekend every year in late September.
Then there’s “On Raglan Road,” the poem and the song. G. K. Chesterton may have been exaggerating when he wrote, “The great Gaols of Ireland are the men that God made mad. / For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”
Not all their songs are sad, but the best ones, like “On Raglan Road,” usually are.
“On Raglan Road,” the song that sets Kavanagh’s poem to music, has been recorded by enough artists to fill several tribute albums, from Luke Kelly and The Dubliners (the version used in Martin McDonagh’s film In Bruges) to Van Morrison, Glen Hansard, The Chieftains, Sinead O’Connor, Mark Knopfler, Roger Daltrey, and British folk singer Billy Bragg. It’s been performed live by Ed Sheeran, Lorena McKennitt, and even—saints preserve us—Billy Joel.
Texas fiddler and singer Hannah Kirby, a finalist on The Voice in 2015, performs “On Raglan Road” at her concerts.
And not even a fantasist on the order of Paddy’s friend Flann O’Brien could have conceived the Raglan Road Pub and Restaurant in—wait for it!—Disney World in Orlando. Near the entrance, a recreation of Kavanagh’s Dublin statue sits on a bench overlooking the tourists and parades on Main Street, vying for attention with Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy. The pub promises “The Life and Soul of Ireland. And not a leprechaun in sight! Nor Green Beer.”
Surely all this draws snickers from the shades of Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, Oliver St. John Gogarty and other literary Guinness guzzlers who, in life, frequented The Bailey Bar on Duke Street in Dublin. No doubt the loudest guffaw would be Behan’s. Kavanagh and Behan began as friends but came to despise each other, with Behan mocking Kavanagh’s rustic background with slurs, calling him a “bloody-bog man,” “the fucker from Mucker” (a village about a mile from Kavanagh’s birthplace), and, in his best insult, “The Plowboy of the Western World.”
Kavanagh retaliated: “You’re a fake, Behan. All your best lines are stolen from Shaw or O’Casey. You used to be a national phony. Now you’re an international one.” Begora.
Surely Behan would have muttered a curse blacker than Oliver Cromwell’s soul if he had known “On Raglan Road” would become a national—and international—treasure.
The road to “On Raglan Road” began in Inniskeen in 1904 when Patrick, the fourth of ten children, was born to a family whose father supported them making shoes and farming. Patrick had six years of formal education, then at age 12 left school to help his father. The real poverty of his life, he later reflected, was “lack of enlightenment [and] I am afraid this fog of unknowing affected me dreadfully."
In his twenties, he submitted poems to publications in London and Dublin, some of which he composed in his head while working a plow. George Wilson Russell of The Irish Statesman rejected the offerings but encouraged him to keep trying. In 1931, Patrick walked the 80 kilometers to Dublin, where his brother taught school and where he began to lift the “fog of unknowing” by reading Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Whitman, Emerson, and Browning.
His first book, Plowman and Other Poems (1936), stirred little interest on the local literary scene; his breakthrough was The Great Hunger, a long poem published in 1942 in Horizon magazine. The poem caused a minor uproar with its unsentimental portrayal of Irish rural life, a subject even the best Irish poets tended to romanticize.
The protagonist, the farmer Patrick Maguire, is “the peasant who is only once removed from the beasts he drives.” To paraphrase Thomas Gray, Maguire is born to blush unseen, but life has squeezed all sweetness out of him:
Nobody will ever know how much tortured poetry the pulled weeds on the ridge wrote
Before they withered in the July sun,
Nobody will ever read the wild, sprawling, scrawling mad woman's signature,
The hysteria and the boredom of the enclosed nun of his thought.
Like the afterbirth of a cow stretched on a branch in the wind
Life dried in the veins of these women and men:
The grey and grief and unloved,
The bones in the backs of their hands,
And the chapel pressing its low ceiling over them.
Near the end of his life, Maguire wonders:
O what was I doing when the procession passed?
Where was I looking? Young women and men
And I might have joined them.
Who bent the coin of my destiny
That it stuck in the slot?
In Tom O’Brien’s play On Raglan Road, Kavanagh proclaims “The Great Hunger isn’t about the Famine. It’s about the hunger for… love, food, land, life… everything. But mostly it’s about the hunger for sex…” In the play, a character observes Paddy’s “vision of Ireland was slightly at odds with that of [president] Mr. De Valera—and Dev was pretty-thin skinned about things like that.”
In Modern Ireland in 100 Art Works, Fintan O’Toole summed up the importance of The Great Hunger: “Kavanagh is the first English-language poet of real stature to emerge from a class that was much written about by others: the Catholic small farmers who were supposedly the heart of independent Ireland. But what he had to say was not quite what many wanted to hear.”
But fellow poets John Betjeman and Seamus Heaney (who grew up on a farm about ninety miles from Inniskeen) praised The Great Hunger without reservation. Betjeman thought it the best poem in English since The Wasteland. The fuss stirred up by The Great Hunger made Kavanagh a cause celebre, like John Millington Synge in 1907 when the earthy humor of The Playboy of The Western World was denounced by leaders of church and state.
The Great Hunger was never officially banned, though there are stories of police seizing copies of Horizon from bookstores. The notoriety did nothing to improve Kavanagh’s finances, though it did bestow on him the unofficial title of “Ireland’s Peasant Poet.” As Anthony Cronin put it, “He was Dublin’s poet-about-town. Himself was a bit more skeptical; to him, Dublin was an illiterate and malignant wilderness.” Irish writers “were exiles in their own country.”
At any rate, he was a poet about town in the fall of 1944 when, living on Raglan Road (named for the commander of the British forces in the Crimean War), his life was changed forever at the sight of a 22-year-old medical student, Hilda Moriarity. There was no mystery about the attraction: Hilda was brilliant, vivacious and, simply, a complete knockout. (A few years later, on a trip to America, she had a Hollywood screen test, but the studio people didn’t know what could be done with her accent.) Kavanagh was, according to his friends, “obsessed,” “enchanted,” and finally, “inspired” by her.
For her part, Hilda was flattered and amused by the adoration of one her country’s most prominent, if notorious, poets. But she was wary of the relationship, in part because of the nearly 19-year age difference, but also, her father reminded her, class differences. For Christmas, she invited him to her parents’ home in Dingle, County Kerry. Dr. Moriarty was cordial to the poet but made it clear that he meant for his daughter to have an education and a marriage to someone with a higher social status than a former Inniskeen farmer. His plans bore fruit in 1947 when Hilda married Donagh O’Malley, an educator who would become Ireland’s minister of education and whose legacy would be free secondary school to all in the country.
Hilda was no ordinary muse. She loved Kavanagh’s work, but teased him: “Can you not then, write about anything other than stony grey soil and bogs, Paddy?" According to legend, he replied, "I will immortalize you in poetry, Hilda."
And he did. On October 3, 1946 the Irish Press published Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away; to protect her identity, Kavanagh borrowed the name of his brother’s girlfriend.
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
Years after the poem was published, Kavanagh said in an interview that he had set his poem to the tune of a lovely traditional Irish song—a sad song, of course—"The Dawning of the Day,” the title of which he preserved in “On Raglan Road.”
One night in the mid ’60s, Kavanagh was in The Bailey to hear Luke Kelly and the Dubliners. Between songs, Kavanagh approached Luke and told him, “You should sing my poem.” Luke did, with magnificent results.
And so, “On Raglan Road” leaped off the page and into the rich Irish music lore.
Kavanagh wrote four other poems for Hilda, all untitled. One closes with the lines
O Hilda waits
Somewhere in my imagination all the day.
She shall not leave me again…
And though their lives took separate turns, she never did. Kavanagh made Hilda immortal, and she returned the favor. At his funeral in 1967 there was a large wreath of roses in the shape of an H. After his death she contributed again to his legacy. Russell Crowe was introduced to Kavanagh’s poetry by the actor Richard Harris, with whom he worked in Gladiator. Harris once said he was introduced to Kavanagh’s poetry by a woman he met at a charity event—her name was Hilda Moriarity O’Malley.
You can find many versions of “On Raglan Road” on YouTube. My favorite is the several singers featured at the TradFest in Dublin a few years ago:
Oscar-winner and star of Once Glen Hansard at the Oarsman in Dublin: