Dr Hilda O'Malley, wife of Donogh O'Malley and friend of
Richard Harris, was the inspiration for Patrick Kavanagh's
best-known poem. Dr John Wallace recounts working in Limerick
with Dr O'Malley.
Hilda O'Malley was born in 1922 in Dingle, County Kerry
but lived most of her life in Sunville on the South Circular
Road and later nearby in Roses Avenue, off the Ennis Road,
Limerick. Hilda originally wanted to be a writer but at
sixteen her father, who was a doctor, brought her to Dublin
and enrolled her in the medical school at UCD. One of her
classmates at the time was Patrick Hillary who would go
on to become President of Ireland. Her father told her as
he enrolled her "I can leave you money but that's easily
lost. Instead I will leave you something much better; a
set of useful skills."
When Hilda's politician husband Donogh O'Malley died suddenly
at a political meeting in Sixmilebridge in County Clare
in 1968, leaving Hilda with two school-going children, she
then understood what her father meant.
While at medical school, according to Antoinette Quinn author
of the recent book on Patrick Kavanagh, Hilda was considered
one of the most beautiful women in Dublin.
In 1946 she met Donogh O'Malley a young engineer from Limerick
who would become one of the most well known ministers in
the Irish government in the late 1960s. Hilda and Donogh
married in August1947 and she met many well-known people
when travelling with Donogh when he was Minister for Education.
While she liked Fidel Castro, the president of Cuba, she
was greatly impressed when she met President Kennedy.
Hilda herself had great presence, indeed she had been called
to Hollywood for a screen test with a view to starring in
a film but she lost out to Maureen O'Hara.
Hilda was just twenty-two years old and studying medicine
when she first met Patrick Kavanagh in the autumn of 1944.
At that time the poet was living in a boarding house on
Raglan Road in the centre of Dublin. In common with many
others, he was very taken with Hilda at their first meeting
and, as he put it himself, he "had it bad" for
In 1980, while Hilda was working as a doctor in Limerick,
I asked her about Patrick Kavanagh. She said that one evening
in Dublin she ran into the unemployed Kavanagh by accident.
He told her that he had been having a difficulty writing.
She said that she could well believe it as all he was good
for was writing about "cattle and sheep". While
she always treated him with kindness, she would also occasionally
tease him. She then asked him could he not write about something
interesting for a change! She told him that he would be
better off writing about people rather than farmyards! He
quickly became defensive and told her that of course he
could write poems about people. In fact, he said , he would
write a poem about a woman! She looked surprised and Patrick
Kavanagh responded "Of course I can write a poem about
a women." She then described how he turned to her with
great seriousness and said "In fact, I'll write a poem
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 walked along
the enchanted way
And I said let grief be like a fallen
leaf at the dawning of the day.
On Raglan Road, celebrates love at first sight and makes
every location where Kavanagh met Hilda an "enchanted
way". The reason Raglan Road is so popular is because
it addresses the ever-interesting topic of unrequited love,
it contains place-names and the poem was later set to the
popular Irish melody The Dawning of the Day.
Kavanagh sang it to this air, in unmistakable manner, to
Luke Kelly in the Bailey public house in Dublin in the late
sixties. The song was also sung and made popular by Van
When Hilda married Donogh O'Malley in 1947 Kavanagh was
broken hearted. He did not forget her and kept a painting
of Hilda propped up against the wall of his bed-sit in Dublin
for some time afterwards. She did not see him again for
many years and when she did he had become quite frail.
When he died in 1967, Hilda had not forgotten him either
and she sent a wreath of roses.
After the sudden death of her husband Donogh in 1968, Hilda
returned to work in Limerick as a medical doctor. She always
regretted stopping work when married because, being a very
outgoing person, she very much enjoyed medicine. What made
her different, as a doctor, was that she never viewed medicine
in isolation. Her interests were wide-ranging and she saw
medicine in terms of wider issues such as housing, education
Her interest in politics was due to the is topic being discussed
frequently with various politicians in the kitchen of her
home, Sunville, on Limerick's North Circular Road.
Sunville was previously owned by the Cruise family, after
whom Cruise Street in Limerick is named. Her interest in
politics led her to run against Donogh's nephew Dessie O'Malley,
for the seat left vacant by her deceased husband in 1968.
Her actor friend Richard Harris, who was then starring in
the stage show Camelot, supported her political campaign.
While campaigning for her he sang a hit song from the show
from a campaign platform on O'Connell Street in Limerick.
Her attempt to win the seat however was unsuccessful.
I last saw Hilda in 1987 when, having lost contact with
her for some time, I eventually found her in an apartment
overlooking the river Shannon near Clancy's Strand in Limerick.
She cut an isolated figure, yet she was as outgoing and
as wide-ranging as ever in her conversation about politics
and Limerick. Though looked after by her son Daragh, the
actor, and Suzanne, a fashion designer, her health failed
and in 1991 she moved in to a Dublin nursing home. According
to her son, at the end she slipped into a coma but woke
briefly and called for Donogh, her deceased husband. She
then died quietly in her sleep. On a cold and wind-swept
day she was buried in Limerick and joining her husband,
the Minister of Education credited with introducing free
education so many years previously. On the morning of her
burial the Taoiseach of the day read On Raglan Road, the
poem that Patrick Kavanagh had written about her, into the
record of the Dail.
On a quiet street where old ghosts
meet I see her walking now
Dr John Wallace worked in Limerick with Dr Hilda O' Malley
from 1977 until 1982.
Courtesy of the Limerick Leader
5 November 2005