Many tributes have been paid to poet Patrick Kavanagh over the past month in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death. Joe Ó Muircheartaigh recounts the story of the Monaghan man’s love of Hilda Moriarty from Dingle that inspired Raglan Road and led him to spend the Christmas 1944 on the west Kerry peninsula in a tale that also takes in a lost suitcase that ended up in County Clare.
Paddy Kavanagh’s Christmas
Listening to the many tributes paid to Patrick Kavanagh this month one resonated above all the rest — that the poet’s genius lay in the way he elevated the ordinary to the extraordinary.
This short thesis was delivered by a fellow Inniskeen man, with that distinctive drawl peculiar to the Monaghan/Cavan hinterland making it all the more convincing, as it parsed all the panegyric down to the local, by another local and in the simplest language possible.
It reminded me of my own brief brush with the ordinary and extraordinary genius of Kavanagh.
In 1986 Kavanagh wasn’t on the Leaving Cert syllabus, but it didn’t stop our teacher in Coláiste Mhuire in Parnell Square from dedicating a year to his poetic works.
It would be easy and nostalgic to say our teacher was the prototype for Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society that was still a few years away — going off-syllabus for our greater good by opening our minds to the literature instead of the exams. Alas, the reality was that he just made a mistake — as a fan of Kavanagh, he just presumed and off he went.
And so the Stony Grey Soil, the Great Hunger and beyond it was…
And, Raglan Road it would become for me thanks to a story that stumbled rather than tripped lightly along the shore from those leafy surrounds of Dublin 4, to a Limerick bedsit that had seen better days and onto the Dingle peninsula.
Raglan Road is now Kavanagh’s most famous verse thanks to the enduring power of Luke Kelly’s recording — his unrequited love of a young medical student from Dingle.
Hilda Moriarty was her name and of course the romantic in me said we were related — cousins, at least somewhere along the long line that says all the Moriartys in the peninsula are from the same gene pool.
Kavanagh fell in love with Moriarty in 1944 — she was just 22 to his 40 years. A young sophisticate with the trappings of wealth and a poor poet eking out a subsistence living as a freelance writer.
An unlikely match, but still one that encouraged Kavanagh to give up Inniskeen for Dingle in Christmas 1944 — in pursuit of Ms Moriarty, but also for his craft in elevating the ordinary to the extraordinary.
And he did just that, thanks to a remarkable essay about his few days in Dingle and further into the Corca Dhuibhne peninsula that was published in The Irish Press — a rambling monologue, yet still a measured dissertation that ran the gamut of life in the most westerly part of Europe.
Mickey Rooney, Robinson Crusoe, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and Eton College all had walk-on parts, but the stars of the show were the Blasket Islanders, with Kavanagh drawn to them like other writers John Millington Synge and Robin Flower before him and Seamus Heaney after him.
“The Blasket is doomed,” he predicted. “No woman will marry onto the island. The present generation will be the last. When I talked over this tragedy with one devil-may-care youth with ginger hair, he said: ‘You should get the Government to send us down a few women’.”
Alas, the women never arrived and Kavanagh was right —
within a decade the Great Blasket was evacuated, something that makes his 1944 lament all the more poignant as a way of a life slowly but inevitably ground to an end.
“I was standing looking out over the ocean when just then five or six canoes carrying Blasket Islanders were making for the mainland,” he wrote. “They were coming over for mass. After mass the islanders partook in liquid refreshment, handed out in all manner of vessels from a jam pot to a cream jug”.
He was talking about a roadside shebeen, one that also doubled as a market stall as the islanders took much-needed provisions home to see them through the new year.
Meal and flour, tea and sugar, matches, oil… on it went, so much so that Kavanagh remarked “Robinson Crusoe himself enumerating his salvage could not have felt more poetical over his catalogue”.
And then they were off, with Kavanagh left in awe:
“It would do any man’s heart good to see those young men take off in their canoes,” he mused. “As the boats skimmed the waves loud laughing songs could be heard above the splash of the oars and the roaring of the seas.”
This was the stuff of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Given Note’ [Port na bPucaí] and the islanders’ spirit music taken from the wind of the mid-Atlantic, coming off the bow gravely and rephrasing itself back into the air.
He had the same sense of awe in Ballyferriter when finding the wisdom of a priest-philosopher — a man who “perfectly sublimated the simpleness of ordinary living and experience into something that grew wings of beauty”.
All the while there was no mention of why he himself grew wings and travelled to Dingle that Christmas — maybe that’s because he already knew his love would be unrequited.
We’ll never know — but maybe I could have.
All because many decades later in a flat in Georgian Limerick an art student friend of mine from Clare found an old suitcase that was full of letters and memories.
They belonged to Hilda Moriarty, later Dr Hilda O’Malley, wife of the larger-than-life Fianna Fáil government minister Donagh O’Malley, who passed away in 1968, just a year after Kavanagh, while campaigning in Sixmilebridge and Cratloe in the by-election that would see Sylvie Barrett elected to Dáil Éireann for the first time.
The suitcase of letters then came to Clare for safekeeping before, after many years, being rightfully repatriated to the O’Malley clan.
But what I would have given for a look inside.
Maybe there were references to Kavanagh’s ‘Christmas in Kerry’, the Blasket Islanders, his love of Hilda Moriarty, Raglan Road and much more.
It would have elevated the extraordinary to a different level altogether.