Monday 19 August 2019

Timeless lines of love will never cease to move me

As the 50th anniversary of poet Patrick Kavanagh's death nears, his words still retain their power, writes Mary O'Rourke

WORDS OF PASSION: Patrick Kavanagh lived around Dublin’s Baggot Street area when he first came to Dublin
WORDS OF PASSION: Patrick Kavanagh lived around Dublin’s Baggot Street area when he first came to Dublin

Mary O'Rourke

Next Thursday, November 30, is the 50th anniversary of the death of Patrick Kavanagh, the Monaghan poet. I thought I would share this memory. It is a sort of a sideways view of Kavanagh but nonetheless interesting.

Many, many years ago I was a student in UCD when it was then on Earlsfort Terrace. It is where I first came across Patrick Kavanagh. A crowd of us would go to a pub at the bottom of Leeson Street for a pint or a coffee.

Kavanagh was sometimes there with a friend or often by himself, and our cheery "hello" would be greeted with a grunt - but a "hello" nonetheless.

I had always loved Kavanagh's poetry, both personally and when I was teaching at secondary level, so I was delighted to see the man himself.

His poetry has accompanied me throughout my life and I look back on my student days - seeing this tall, gangly country man with a hat, sitting at the corner of the pub, - with great fondness.

If I was asked to sum up what I like most about his work, it is that he made the ordinary extraordinary: a dreeping hedge in a lane, bicycles going by in "twos and threes" - "There's a dance in Billy Brennan's barn tonight", a dance from which he, the poet, was excluded.

Kavanagh first encountered Hilda Moriarty on Raglan Road
Kavanagh first encountered Hilda Moriarty on Raglan Road

All of these ordinary things he translated into beautiful words and beautiful lines of poetry, and he addressed emotions with such great simplicity.

When I was teaching, I always said to the students when we were doing poetry: "Say it out loud; don't just be picking up a sanitised critique of the poem or the poet. Just continue to say the poetry out loud."

The reason for this is because I think the more you say a poem out loud, the more sense it begins to make to you.

I used to say: "Don't worry if you can't understand the poem, if it seems esoteric or mystical or difficult to comprehend. Don't think about that. You don't have to make complete sense of it to understand every word. If you find that you like the poem only one thing is required. That is to read it."

As is well known, Patrick Kavanagh lived on Baggot Street when he first came up to Dublin from Monaghan, and quite often he'd walk up Raglan Road where a beautiful young medical student by the name of Hilda Moriarty lived. Kavanagh fell for her, really loved her, and that love is immortalised in the lines from the poem On Raglan Road:

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

The story goes that Hilda Moriarty invited Kavanagh to her family home in Dingle, Co Kerry, for Christmas, but he didn't fit in with them at all.

Political connections: Hilda and Donagh O’Malley
Political connections: Hilda and Donagh O’Malley

It would seem that Hilda's father, Dr Moriarty, decided that this man was not suitable for his lovely, academic daughter.

He advised her to break up with him, and, like the good daughter she was, she broke off the romance.

Kavanagh poured out all of his feelings into the lines of the poem and I am always so moved when I hear it on the radio because it evokes another memory of a time in my own life, which I'll get to in a moment.

Hilda Moriarty married Donagh O'Malley, who would go on to be Minister for Education. His greatest achievement would be to make secondary education free in Ireland. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of his death.

I met Hilda O'Malley once, when she accompanied Donagh to Athlone to open a new primary school. She was waiting in the car for him and I stopped to chat to her. I have never seen a more beautiful couple together.

They were like two film stars, dark and attractive and mysterious looking - Ireland didn't have such glamorous people in those days, so you can imagine they both made their mark.

Perhaps Hilda Moriarty's father was right to think that Patrick Kavanagh was not a good match for his daughter, and I suppose that if Kavanagh had never met her, we wouldn't have this beautiful poem today.

But there is another twist to this story. Hilda O'Malley died in 1991, and on that day, Charlie Haughey, who was Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fail, came into the weekly parliamentary party meeting. We were flush with TDs and senators then. He stood behind the table and said: "Yesterday, Hilda O'Malley died," and then went on to recite On Raglan Road in its entirety. He then told us the story that I've just told you, and as he did, it dawned on me that he may also have been ensnared by her dark hair.

It wouldn't surprise me. She was a beautiful and gifted woman.

When Charlie had finished the poem, you could have heard a pin drop. I think we were all a bit surprised at this sudden show of emotion.

Later on that day, I found myself in the lift with Charlie and I plucked up the courage to say: "That was a lovely poem."

Now, Charlie was very much 'the boss', but I think he respected me because he knew I had been a teacher. "Thank you Mary," he smiled, "I'm glad you enjoyed it.

"It went over the heads of three-quarters of them," he added drily, referring to the members of the parliamentary party.

I have always read anything I can get my hands on about Patrick Kavanagh, and whenever I'm in need of a lift, I open my edition of Soundings and read the lines about the "stony grey soil of Monaghan" or the lines of Inniskeen Road: July Evening.

A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king

Of banks and stones and every blooming thing

But it is to On Raglan Road that I always return, to the memory of my youth and my early days in college and to the casual encounters with Patrick Kavanagh in the pub on Leeson Street, to the memory of that day in Dail Eireann, but mostly to the beauty of the lines and the expression of unrequited love within them:

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 sounds 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.

To my mind, On Raglan Road is one of the great love poems of any generation -love unrequited and then retold with such passion and emotion.

Patrick Kavanagh, 50 years dead next Thursday, November 30. Each year that goes by, his fame and the bright light of his poetry is renewed and renewed, again and again.

Much of the narrative in the above piece is taken from Mary O'Rourke's recent book Letters of my Life, available in all good bookshops.

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