An ode to unrequited love

Artists find inspiration for their work from many sources, personal experience, nature, tragic events, love, marriage, happiness, unhappiness, people and places but perhaps the one source that has inspired more artists than any other in a myriad of ways is the female being and the female form. Some of the greatest painters of all time have used the female form as the basis for some of their greatest works. Mona Lisa is a prime example while some of the greatest composers have also written their finest pieces in memory of or to give adulation to a particular woman.

The giants of literature too have been similarly inspired and have produced volumes as a result of such experiences. Poets in particular have used their medium to express their deepest thoughts and for Monaghan’s Patrick Kavanagh it was his infatuation with a young beauty of his time that inspired what has become his best-known work, On Raglan Road, the only poem written by Kavanagh to have been put to music. The actual title of the poem is very simply explained because it was in the autumn of 1944 that the poet first met and became totally besotted by the young Hilda Moriarty, a medical student from Kerry who was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Dublin society.

At the time of the meeting Patrick Kavanagh was in need of some inspiration because he had been going through a particularly bad spell having had his gossip column with the Irish Press terminated which left him in a way relying on charity although he did supplement his meagre resources by working as an extra with a couple of film companies who were operating in and around Dublin at that particular time. Down on his luck, out of work, seeing himself with little or no prospects of marriage and an understandable loss of self esteem, Kananagh’s psychological makeup at the time was ripe for some moment of inspiration. Part of Kavanagh's income, if not indeed all of it, was the weekly donation he received from the then Archbishop of Dublin, Archbishop McQuaid, and he gladly wrote to the Bishop about his meeting with the young medical student, describing it as a special grace. Hilda Moriarty was a fairly impressionable young woman at that time and having an interest in literature she was probably at least amused to have one of Ireland's best-known poets taking an interest in her. Kavanagh, for his part, being a free agent and with little to occupy his time was able to keep in touch with her movements. No doubt too the young woman's compassion was stirred by the fact that her admirer was down on his luck and she treated him very sympathetically, something that Kavanagh perhaps read too much into at the time. When Hilda went home to Kerry for Christmas that year Kavanagh followed her to Kerry as opposed to going back to spend Christmas with his mother in Inniskeen. Kavanagh was not invited to spend Christmas in her home so he put up at a guesthouse and defrayed at least part of his expenses by writing about My Christmas in Kerry for the then Irish Press although his attention to detail regarding Kruger Kavanagh’s business dealings drew his wrath as well and led to a speedy departure by the poet. 1944 turned into 1945 and back in Dublin Kavanagh continued to lavish his attentions on the young lady as well as trying his best to transform himself from an ex small farmer turned poet into the kind of suitor that he felt would be worthy of Hilda's attentions.

This effort though inspired him to write a somewhat overstated account of the process which he presented to the Irish Times in January of 1946 under the heading The Lay of the Crooked Knight. By this time though Hilda had become tired of Kavanagh’s attentions and was doing her best to distance herself from him and eventually Kavanagh realised that their relationship had come to the end of the road. Kavanagh suffered a further blow at this time with the death of his mother, something that had a devastating affect on him and some of his writings in later years would give an insight into the trauma he experienced and the regrets he had about feeling that he had possibly neglected his mother after his meeting with Hilda Moriarty. His mother's death though inspired him to write a number of pieces, an article entitled A Conversation With Memory and there is also the very moving elegy In Memory Of My Mother.
Around this time too Kavanagh was very fortunate to have obtained employment with magazine called The Standard, obtaining the position through the representations of his benefactor Archbishop McQuaid and that helped give him back some of his self-esteem.

Later, though, he possibly felt that it also hastened the dilution of Miss Moriarty's feelings of compassion for him but his pursuit of Miss Moriarty meant that he did not want to back to Inniskeen to take over the family farm after the death of his mother. By the end of that year, 1945, Kavanagh was in a position where he realised what had happened and the ballad was written as a means of expressing the full meaning of the relationship to him from their first meeting through to their bitter parting. On Raglan Road was published on October 3rd 1946 when it appeared in the Irish Press but under a different title and the central character having been changed to protect Hilda’s identity and a girl called Miriam was the girl he met “On Raglan Road on an Autumn day. “Miriam it emerged was the name of one his brother’s girlfriend's. Kavanagh had set the poem to the air of a very popular song of the time, The Dawning of the Day and he had a habit of giving it to people that he knew had good singing voices to get some more publicity for it in the hope that it might become a hit. Despite his best efforts though it remained totally unnoticed until it appeared in his Collected Poems in 1964 and was described in the collection as a song lyric. Kavanagh's dream of it becoming a hit though was ultimately realised when he gave the song to Luke Kelly of the Dubliners and the rest in that regard as they say is history. By this too Hilda had found a new suitor, a young man called O’Malley who was later to become a Fianna Fail deputy in 1954 and later still was to be appointed as Minister for Education. Kavanagh had not given up completely on his feelings for Hilda and it is reliably reported that he even accompanied O’Malley and Hilda on one of their dates. Hilda and O’Malley became engaged and were married in August of 1947 and while he tried to pretend that this was of little consequence in reality he was heartbroken. The bitterness he felt about the failure of the relationship is very evocatively described in some of the lines of ‘On Raglan Road’ and all of the places that he mentions in the ballad, Grafton Street, Holles Street, St Stephen's Green and the Country Shop were all central to the area of Dublin where they had met and walked. Hilda however, it turned out had never quite lost her interest in Kavanagh but they only ever met once again at a function in Dublin but that interest only manifested itself after his death. What happened could indicate that the love affair was not as one-sided as might have appeared or indeed as Kavanagh might have ever imagined because on his death in November 1967 the woman of his dreams sent a wreath of red roses in the form of an H. although whether the relationship was one-sided or whether the love he had shown for her was returned in equal measure will never truly be known. One thing that is certain though is that Kavanagh's feelings for the young lady from Kerry have left her immortalised in verse and given her a place in literature and a degree of immortality that is reserved for the very few.