Kavanagh, Kelly and Raglan Road

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904–67) came from a small-farming background in Co. Monaghan and settled in Dublin, where he became part of the impecunious but garrulous mid-century literary scene that also featured the likes of Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien, Myles na Gopaleen) and Brendan Behan. Kavanagh’s somewhat cantankerous personality propelled him into various feuds, especially with Behan (my mother, who knew them both, told me of watching Behan chase Kavanagh up O’Connell Street on one occasion).

This is Kavanagh’s poem ‘On Raglan Road’, which he also rendered as a song, to the old tune ‘The Dawning of the Day’. The clip shows the poet for the first couple of lines, then switches to the great Luke Kelly (who merits a blog in his own right). The song is popular in Ireland … I know all the words and have often sung it on social occasions.

The woman with whom Kavanagh is somewhat bitterly besotted in the poem, having spurned him, later married a government minister.

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;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.

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 sound 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.

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay –
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.



Filed under Ireland, Music, Poems

44 responses to “Kavanagh, Kelly and Raglan Road

  1. Ike Jakson

    Hi Brendan

    You seem to have a store of the famous and the infamous of days gone by; keep posting them.

    Just don’t ever ask me to tell you too much of our ancestors. Our maternal grandfather was born in 1877 and was a giant of a man, and a saint by the time I was born in 1940 [as most grandchildren would like to have in a granddad]. He often regaled us with stories of the past. However, the tales of many of the others are best left untold. The area of my birth was on the southern “line” of the “surface diamond” region of old in our North-west province, you know.

    I like the song.

  2. Thank you, Ike. Yes, there are a lot of interesting people in the past

    Some of the Irish ones, little known elsewhere, may be of interest to the wider world.

    Your grandad sounds like quite a character.

  3. madeoforléans

    Asked by an Irish journalist if the impact of the ball on the Uruguayans hand was a penalty, for which Henry remonstrated strongly. Raymond Domenech replied ‘No because the referee’s whistle didn’t, blow so it wasn’t a penalty’ neat and respectful reply”

  4. In fairness, it would have been a very harsh call on Uruguay, Richard. It was never a penalty.

    Henry’s bout of volleyball was very different.

  5. madeoforléans

    Brendano, you are right, but i just appreciated the response. Domenech who is detested in France,but for whom I have a certain respect, is in fact quite clever and witty in his responses.

  6. He’s an unusual coach … he seems to allow the players to indulge in all kinds of tantrums. The opposite of Capello.

    Apparently he once dropped Robert Pires for being a Scorpio!

  7. Rainer the cabbie

    Irish culture is very much alive down under.


    I hope you are well Brendano. 🙂

  8. So it would seem, Rainer … thanks for that; I’m glad to see Bloomsday is spreading. 🙂

    Culture is important. A lack of it seems to create a vacuum that can be filled by base instincts.

    I’m very well … nice sunny weekend here; watching a bit of football. You too, I hope.

  9. madeoforléans

    Well we do things differently, you are not autocratic with us. Either we find it within us to accomplish the deed or not. Help guidance, support,are welcome but no orders. Otherwise just nothing happens.
    I find myself in a really unusual situation tonight. For the first time in I don’t know how long I want the yanks to win!!!
    I didn’t see the rugby, but very disappointing.

  10. I got up early to watch Ireland’s match with NZ. It was a non-event after Heaslip’s early sending-off, yet 14-man Ireland played some good rugby and scored four tries, with another wrongly disallowed. Bizarre.

  11. Cymbeline

    I like the deep and respectful listening in the small audience. They care about the words of the poet; and they care about the song.

  12. Hello, Cymbeline … I hope you’re well. The song is very popular in Ireland, and is sung in nearly every pub session … I sang it with a couple of other people in a pub in Ballyjamesduff last weekend, around 3 a.m.

    There are some well-known faces from the Irish cultural scene in the audience, including the writer Benedict Kiely and the broadcaster Ciarán Mac Mathúna. Both have died in recent years. Luke Kelly is long dead.


    Kelly changes the words of the poem slightly, probably not intentionally. I find this a tiny bit irksome, as I know the poem and it is Kelly’s version that tends to be sung. Poems are not to be trifled with. 🙂

  13. Cymbeline

    Yes. And I passed/ a deep ravine /by such and such / without stint /loved.

    But Kavanagh himself exchanges ‘could’ for the written ‘would’.

  14. Cymbeline

    Great semantic difference between ‘would’ and ‘could’, especially within the context of the poem as a whole.

  15. That’s true, Cymbeline.

    When I was in a ballad group practising for a competition a few months ago, another man was practising for the solo singing and this was his song, so I heard him sing it perhaps 20 times in all. He always sang ‘that I had loved not as I should’, and I always felt like telling him that it should be ‘wooed’ – which I think sounds and works much better.

  16. Cymbeline

    Yes, because Kavanagh wants to be the angel.

  17. Yes … I always thought the poem was a bit contemptuous and indicated a poor understanding of women … it was no wonder he lost her.

    My mother worked on a farming newspaper and the editor, being a kind man, used to commission Kavanagh to write pieces, as he knew the poet was always short of money. That was how my mother got to know Kavanagh.

    After he died, his brother Peter, based in the USA, dedicated his life to looking after Patrick’s estate, work and reputation. My father used to correspond with Peter by letter, and they became quite friendly.

    I remember that I used to sing the song at home, laboriously striking the chords on the piano. I think my mother, being a devout Catholic, was a little perturbed by ‘true gods of sound and stone’.

  18. Cymbeline

    I do not find the poem contemptuous, and I do not think that ‘women’ can be ‘understood’ en bloc. Can anyone be ‘understood’?

    Perhaps he was right to see himself as an angel.

    Very interesting about your family links to the man.

    I delighted in the line ‘true gods of sound and stone’. Sand is in there somewhere.

  19. Cymbeline

    Sound and fury …. signifying nothing, too.

  20. Yes, I like ‘true gods of sound and stone’ too, and think there’s a lot in it.

    Perhaps he was right, but I doubt that he was a happy angel. Perhaps he didn’t want to be.

    I think there’s a mild note of lofty contempt (or sour grapes) in the final verse. I doubt that he made an effort to understand her. I’d say that he expected her to understand him, but she had other fish to fry. I doubt that he respected sufficiently the differences between male and female nature, but I could of course be wrong. He certainly wrote a great poem about his mother.

    The subject of the poem was Dr Hilda Moriarty, and she married this man:


  21. Cymbeline

    I try not to let biography interfere with poetry.

    Some people do not seek happiness as an aim in itself. I certainly don’t.

    At another level, I have great respect for anyone known fondly as the ‘School Man’, as I see Dr Moriarty’s husband was known.

  22. Yes, I also try to let to let biography interfere with any kind of art.

    The poem does speak of throwing happiness away, which suggests to me that it is seen as worth having.

    Anyway, time for bed. Goodnight.

  23. Cymbeline

    Worth having – certainly. But perhaps not at all costs.

    Nos da.

  24. Cymbeline

    I thank the gods for the stone.

  25. Cymbeline

    No. I do not thank. I recognize that the stone is there. That is all.

  26. Cymbeline

    Re comment 15 : why didn’t you tell him?

  27. It might have seemed impolite, Cymbeline. He was a solo singer; what he sang was his own business, I decided.

  28. Cymbeline

    Yes, of course. I think too that when a poem is sung, it goes into a different sphere – into a deeply personal part of the mind. The singer owns the song.

  29. It’s not so long ago that songs existed only when being sung … all music was live. Now we may have ‘definitive’ recorded versions.

    Songs always evolved, as you know. Many folk songs in the USA are clearly related to ones in these islands, but took on their own character. They reflect the land and the people, I suppose. Dominic Behan was annoyed when Bob Dylan ‘borrowed’ one of his tunes, but Behan himself had borrowed it from the folk tradition.

    Sometimes if you listen carefully to a folk song, it is clear that one of the verses is from a different song altogether, yet that is now the generally accepted version.

    De novo songs like ‘Raglan Road’ must submit to the same forces, I suppose.

  30. Cymbeline

    I like the way the above poem is rooted in a road, a street. Raglan Road. Grafton Street. That is what gives the poem permanency. I have always been interested in the poetry to be found in the apparently mundane and ordinary world. Flashes of beauty everywhere.

    Thank you very much for this poem/song.

  31. You’re welcome, Cymbeline. I agree re the poetry of the mundane world.

    Incidentally, Raglan Road is a small and obscure road in the old and expensive suburb of Ballsbridge. There is a statue of Kavanagh near by.

    Grafton Street is the centre of Dublin’s energy, really, and will always have a major place in my heart.

  32. The tune (The Dawning of the Day) is easy to play on the tin whistle. Many thousands of Irish schoolchildren have learned it over the years.

  33. Cymbeline

    My sister was in the centre of Seoul one day, and over the afternoon, she saw a love affair being played out. It took place in several streets. She was not following the lovers; they just kept turning up where she was walking. At one point, the man was begging tearfully on his knees, as a swarm of people swirled by on the pavement. He was like a rock in the ocean.

  34. Cymbeline

    I like the tin whistle. Again; magic in the apparently mundane.

  35. Cymbeline

    One of the reasons I am fond of ‘Don Quixote’ is to do with the way universalism and the vagaries of the mind are firmly rooted in ordinary places – El Toboso, Puerto Lapice, Daimiel, Campo de Criptana …. still there on the map after hundreds of years.

    Always hated imaginary towns, and the way place-names are called X in some French novels, and I have always disliked Illyria.

  36. Good story about your sister, Cymbeline … obviously she is observant. Ulysses is like that … repeated encounters on city streets as people go about their business over the course of a day.

    I liked that about Don Quixote too. Sometimes it was hard to believe that it was written 400 years ago. Cervantes’ comic spirit made everything so immediate.

    A couple of years ago I worked on a book called On soul and earth: The psychic value of place, edited by Elena Liotta (translated from the Italian). It dealt with the kind of thing you allude to, and was very interesting in parts.

  37. Liotta writes evocatively. From her preface:

    ‘I never went back to the city where I was born or to the places I lived in as a child. Yet I could have. I traveled elsewhere, in places that were geographically close, but never the same. I didn’t consciously avoid them. It just didn’t happen and the years passed, but perhaps sooner or later I will return. It is as if, in the meanwhile, the past has become a poem, a painting, an experience intuitively alive and available, but concretely out of reach. A perennial and subtle nostalgia for places that in any case would no longer be the same and that I wouldn’t have seen changing. Or in which parallel stories of life would have taken place. It is all quite complex. For example, I am often saddened by the thought that if I had remained in Argentina, for age and idealism, I would have ended up among the desaparecidos. Actually I had disappeared from a land, but to be alive in another.

    ‘Subsequently, during my years in Venezuela, I became acquainted with the local history, that of the colonized Indios, the geography, the heroes, the folk traditions. This left in me a mosaic of sensations – colors, odors, atmospheres – and also of emotional and spiritual values, which I never encountered again in my subsequent and more intellectual European education. Yet I realize that my foundations and my cultural instruments belong to the Italian and European culture, consolidated by classical studies and mediated by an open democratic family. Despite this, however, when I had the chance to choose, I continued to look elsewhere, always feeling the call of the “rest of the world.”’

  38. Cymbeline

    Very interesting piece by Liotta. Grazie.

    I had an utterly magical and unusual childhood on a small coral island in the South Pacific, and I would never go back there now. The island has changed for the worse, and I was not even capable of reading a recent description of the place by a British journalist. He described that island as a ‘toilet’ now. I stopped reading. In my head, it is still a place of beauty.

    Very strong feeling of having been cast out of paradise, especially as I left there for boarding school at the onset of puberty. Lost innocence connected to a place in the past.

    Sipu has an even stronger sense of that sort of loss, I think.

  39. Thanks, Cymbeline. I thought the Liotta piece might interest you, given what you’d said about your background. What a shame that the island has deteriorated so badly.

    Your childhood would provide great material for either fiction or non-fiction, but I know you’ve said you’re not interested in doing that.

  40. Cymbeline

    I think I told you that my last primary school teacher was a young bachelor Irishman. The school was on that island. It was a one-room school with about fifteen pupils. I was the only one in my class, and the teacher needed to spend most of his time with the younger children – teaching them to read and write for example. He gave me his big teacher desk, and put me at the back of the room, and let me do what I liked, so I read and wrote plays. He used to say ‘lower your voice to a scream’, which I always found very funny. Very dry sense of humour. At the end of the day, he would sweep the schoolroom.

    One day, he came to school looking haunted dishevelled, and told me to stop ‘looking like that’ because I looked as bad as something he had seen the night before.

    Later, overhearing adults’ conversation, I learnt that he had seen a ghost. He believed that it was to do with a gravestone he had found and used as a doorstep.

  41. Great story, Cymbeline … it’s like a sort of magic realism. Something to do with the effect the Tropics have on people? I love the gravestone doorstep.

    I can imagine your teacher, as I had some who were probably similar but hadn’t ventured so far. I remember one young man who taught us a lot of ballads … eventually he was buried in the same graveyard as my mother on the same day, having died very young. I wonder what became of your teacher?

    ‘lower your voice to a scream’ would be typical of the stock of sayings that some of my teachers would have had.

  42. Cymbeline

    What a terrible, terrible day.

    My parents came across my teacher some years later, in an aeroplane. He had married, and was with his wife. She was a Filipina, and a schoolteacher too, I think. He was happy. I hope he still is.

  43. That’s good, Cymbeline. So the ghost-seeing didn’t put him off the rails completely.

    The paths that life leads us down can be strange. ‘A path with a heart’ is a phrase I once heard … we must try to walk on a path with a heart.

  44. Cymbeline

    Yes, there are many paths, and many hearts.

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