by Nora-Jane Thornton, National Photographic Archive (and Unashamed Romantic)
Closure, not the most romantic of sentiments, seems to be the message of this letter. It was written by the poet, Patrick Kavanagh in May 1945 to Hilda Moriarty, a young medical student whom he had met the previous year. In it he seems to acknowledge the end of their affair, he is ‘no longer mad about‘ her and wants to be her friend ‘if you will let me‘.
However, there is more to the story. In 1944 Patrick Kavanagh lived on Raglan Road in Dublin and spotted the young Hilda on her way to UCD where she was studying medicine. She was a beauty, it was said, with deep blue eyes and dark wavy hair and Kavanagh became besotted with her. He began to follow her around Dublin and even followed her home to Kerry for Christmas that same year. Hilda was more interested in his poetry however, and being nearly 40 with seemingly no prospects, she viewed him more as a friend.
Patrick visited Dunsany Castle, Co. Meath with Hilda in May 1945 as he was hoping Lord Dunsany, a published author, would become his patron. The visit was ultimately financially fruitless, but inspired by his walk through the bluebells of Dunsany with Hilda, Kavanagh wrote Bluebells in Love, one of his finest love poems. This letter was written on 31 May, soon after this visit to Dunsany.
By 1946 Hilda had met Donogh O’Malley, the future Fianna Fáil Minister for Education. Patrick Kavanagh used to accompany Hilda and Donogh on dates, something that suggests he was nowhere near over their relationship, ‘or whatever it was‘. Kavanagh was devastated by Hilda’s new romance and around this time he wrote On Raglan Road, one of his best known poems. It was later set to music and has been sung by Luke Kelly among others. It was originally entitled Dark-haired Miriam ran away. Kavanagh used the name Miriam in an attempt to disguise the identity of his subject. However, there can be no doubt that the poem was written about Hilda.
Hilda and Donogh O’Malley married in 1947 and settled in Limerick. This seemed to have brought an end to the love affair that never was. However, when Kavanagh died in 1967, Hilda sent a wreath of red roses to his funeral. Following Donogh’s death in 1968, Hilda returned to work as a doctor and always remembered Kavanagh fondly until her death in 1991.
There are many love affairs that lasted longer than theirs and many that are far less one-sided, but there are few that have inspired such powerful poetry. Perhaps unrequited love, rather than love itself, is the greatest muse of all. This Valentine’s Day, why don’t you take the opportunity to express your true feelings to the one you love. No matter what the outcome.
Bean an Phoist says: Serendipitously spotted on Dawson Street, Dublin – apparently this letter is part of the Valentine’s Day Display in the window of Hodges Figgis, because it features in Straight from the Heart: Irish Love Letters edited by Bridget Hourican.