The beauty who inspired Kavanagh's Raglan Road

In the Monaghan-born poet's centenary year, his biographer Antoinette Quinn reveals the real story behind his best known poem, later immortalised in song by Luke Kelly

On Raglan Road in autumn 1944 the poet Patrick Kavanagh first met and became infatuated with Hilda Moriarty. Hilda, aged 22 and a medical student from Dingle, was generally considered one of the two most beautiful women in Dublin. (Kathleen Ryan, star of the film Odd Man Out, was the other.)

She had creamy skin, high cheekbones and deep blue eyes and the "long dark hair" the poet so much admired was wavy, blue-black in colour and worn shoulder-length. Hilda was also stylishly and expensively dressed. Her father, a medical doctor, lavished gifts of clothes and jewellery on her and, in addition, Irish dress designers gave her clothes to wear as an ad for their products.

At the time of their first meeting Patrick Kavanagh was about to turn 40. Although he had moved from Inniskeen to Dublin five years previously, he still walked, talked and dressed like the 'ploughman' he had once been.

He was unemployed, having recently lost his job as a gossip columnist with the Irish Press, and had sublet his flat at 62 Pembroke Road because he couldn't afford the rent. He was living in Mrs Kenny's boarding house at 19 Raglan Road where, as he put it, he was "housed, bedded and cleaned out" for 10 shillings a week. The 10 shillings was paid by a benefactor, Archbishop McQuaid. When not desperately job-hunting, Kavanagh passed the time revising a rejected novel, which was about to be rejected again, and working on a collection of poems, also rejected. He was depressed and in need of some excitement or consolation when he first encountered Hilda.

"There is a considerable element of will about falling in love," he wrote, two years later. "There is more of a suicide than an accidental death about it." From the outset, he knew that the relationship with Hilda was doomed, that he "would one day rue" it.

At first Hilda appeared to welcome Kavanagh's attentions. She was interested in literature and it was a novelty for her to have one of Ireland's leading poets among her retinue of admirers. She also felt sorry that things were going so badly for him and was gentle and sympathetic. Kavanagh was overly encouraged. In letters to his archbishop patron, he referred to his meeting with Hilda as "a special grace" and described her in terms he thought would appeal to an ecclesiastic, as a "charming, virtuous girl" who did not go to dances and whose uncle was a parish priest.

When Hilda went home to Dingle for Christmas 1944, Kavanagh followed her. There was no invitation to the Moriarty home, of course. A middle-aged, out-of-work journalist and ex-small farmer was not the kind of husband Dr Paddy Moriarty envisaged for his beautiful daughter. Kavanagh put up at Kruger Kavanagh's guesthouse in Dunquin and defrayed his expenses by publishing an article on "My Christmas in Kerry" in the Irish Press.

By the following May, Hilda and he were still spending time together, sometimes meeting for lunch in the Country Shop on Stephen's Green. Hilda often teased him that he always wrote agricultural poems about fields and weeds. In May he responded with a tender, subtle love poem, Bluebells for Love, based on their visit to Lord Dunsany's estate in Co Meath when the bluebells were in bloom.

However, Kavanagh "loved too much" and was becoming too possessive. He stalked Hilda, sitting in Mitchell's or Roberts' cafe on Grafton Street staring at her as she drank coffee with her women friends, even following her on dates with other men.

His constant presence in her vicinity made him a laughing-stock. She did her best to shake him off. By the end of 1945 it was evident even to the love-blind poet that Hilda was avoiding him. On Raglan Road, a ballad of lost love that traces their relationship from first rapture to final rupture, was written about this time.

Kavanagh set the poem to the air of the popular song The Dawning of the Day and Ben Kiely remembers the two of them singing it to this tune in the office of the Standard, where they both worked. (Archbishop McQuaid had used his influence to get Kavanagh a job with this Catholic weekly in August 1945.)

On Raglan Road was not published until October 3, 1946 when it appeared in the Irish Press as Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away. Rather than alienate Hilda still further by using her name, Kavanagh had borrowed the name of one of his brother's girlfriends.

The poem was accompanied by a photograph of its author, dressed in an oversized jacket, his hair already thinning. At this stage, a gloomy, rather meaningless line, "Synthetic sighs and fish-dim eyes and all death's loud display" was substituted for "The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay".

That same year Hilda fell in love with the dashing, flamboyant Donogh O'Malley, then an engineer, later to be a Fianna Fail government minister. The lovelorn Kavanagh accompanied the couple on some of their dates. O'Malley, who didn't regard Kavanagh as a threat, was merely amused. He and Hilda married the following summer.

The last verse of On Raglan Road betrays some of the bitterness Kavanagh felt at Hilda's defection. Here he portrays himself as a superior being who has made the mistake of loving an inferior. He is an angel who has stooped to woo an unworthy "creature made of clay" and, as a result, almost lost his wings. His letters show the same bitterness. Hilda was out to get a good catch, he implies, using her dark hair as "a snare". He remarks that she has now put her hair up, a sign that "the hunt" is over for her.

In 1948 Kavanagh presented On Raglan Road to Claire McAllister, a young American poet who was visiting Dublin, and managed to persuade her that she was its heroine. Both of them seem to have overlooked the inconvenient fact that, whereas the poem's heroine is dark-haired, Claire's most distinctive feature was her long mane of auburn hair which led to her being nicknamed 'Marmalade'. He was even less successful with Claire than he had been with Hilda.

Kavanagh thought that On Raglan Road had the makings of a hit song, and was in the habit of giving it to friends with good singing voices, such as Therese Cronin, to perform. However, it languished unpublished until his Collected Poems of 1964. It had been too late for his second collection, A Soul for Sale, sent to the publisher in May 1945, and the collection in which it was included in 1955 was rejected.

In Collected Poems (1964) it was printed as a song lyric with the title followed by the tune: On Raglan Road (Air: The Dawning of the Day). Shortly afterwards, Kavanagh approached Luke Kelly of the Dubliners in the Bailey pub and made him a present of the song. At long last On Raglan Road had found the singer it deserved.

Perhaps the love affair between Kavanagh and Moriarty was not altogether one-sided. When he died in November 1967 she sent a wreath of red roses in the form of an H.

'On Raglan Road' is available in Patrick Kavanagh's 'Selected Poems' (Penguin).

Antoinette Quinn is the author of 'Patrick Kavanagh, A Biography' (Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, ?12.99) and editor of 'A Poet's Country, Patrick Kavanagh's Selected Prose' (Lilliput, Dublin) and of the new centenary edition of Kavanagh's 'Collected Poems' (due from Penguin, London in September)

One hundred years of poetry

* This year is the centenary of Patrick Kavanagh's birth. An annual Raglan Road Festival is being inaugurated in Inniskeen from Friday, July 30 to Sunday, August 1. Highlights include gigs by Brian Kennedy, George Murphy and The Saw Doctors, the launch of a new poetry collection by John Montague, a writer's workshop by Christine Dwyer Hickey, a talk by Tom McIntyre, and Tom and John McArdle's popular show on Kavanagh's life and work.

Tickets are available from all Ticketmaster agents or pay at the door. Details are available on the website of the Patrick Kavanagh Centre, Inniskeen, A full and varied centenary programme is planned for October and November in Inniskeen, Dublin and countrywide. Information will be published on this website soon.