Song of the Week 19: On Raglan Road – Patrick Kavanagh/Luke Kelly

Dia duit,

This week´s Song of the Week began as a poem, written by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967) during the 1940´s, but the melody actually started out much earlier than that. He set the lyric to the music of an old Irish air, The Dawning of the Day (Fáinne Geal an Lae), composed by the blind harpist Thomas Connellan during the 17th century. The Irish language version was published by Edward Walsh in 1847 in Irish Popular Songs and later translated into English and published by Patrick Weston Joyce in 1873.

The original air was known as an Aisling, where the poet encounters a mysterious beautiful woman who symbolizes Ireland. She can´t stay to sit with the protagonist, but walks towards the approaching dawn, which was a metaphor for freedom from English rule. Here are some of the original English lyrics.

One morning early I went out
On the shore of Lough Leinn
The leafy trees of summertime,
And the warm rays of the sun,
As I wandered through the townlands,
And the luscious grassy plains,
Who should I meet but a beautiful maid,
At the dawning of the day.
No cap or cloak this maiden wore
Her neck and feet were bare
Down to the grass in ringlets fell
Her glossy golden hair
A milking pail was in her hand
She was lovely, young and gay
Her beauty excelled even Helen of Troy
At the dawning of the day.
On a mossy bank I sat me down
With the maiden by my side
With gentle words I courted her
And asked her to be my bride
She turned and said, “Please go away,”
Then went on down the way
And the morning light was shining bright
At the dawning of the day.

On Raglan Road was first published as a poem in the Irish Press on 3rd of October 1946 with the original title being “Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away”. According to his brother Peter, Patrick wrote the poem “about his girlfriend Hilda, but to avoid embarrassment he used the name of my girlfriend in the title.” The girl in question was Dr Hilda Moriarty, a beautiful medical student, who later married Donogh O´Malley, the Irish Minister for Health.

Hilda was interviewed by RTÉ in 1987 for a documentary about Kavanagh called Gentle Tiger. In the interview she said that one of the main reasons their relationship failed was the difference in age between the two. Kavanagh was 40 whereas she was only 22 at the time. She also explained how the poem came to be written. Kavanagh described himself as a peasant poet, but Hilda teased him for writing about mundane things like vegetables and soil, and challenged him to write about something else, which he agreed to do. He went away and wrote Raglan Road. It´s named after the street Hilda lived on in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

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 the day.

Luke Kelly (1940 – 1984), of The Dubliners, met Kavanagh in Baileys Pub in Dublin City Centre in the mid 60´s where after hearing Kelly sing a song, Kavanagh turned to him and suggested he should sing Raglan Road. Kelly later said he felt proud to have been given the permission from the great man himself to perform the song.

Here´s Patrick Kavanagh in his own words about coming to Dublin. Unfortunately there are no subtitles for non-Irish natives. He starts out a bit posh and gets more difficult to understand as he goes on as the Monaghan accent takes over.

Patrick Kavanagh is one of the great Irish poets, and the lyric of Raglan Road is one of his masterpieces. There have been many wonderful renditions of this song, but for me the definitive one is Luke Kelly´s version. So here he is singing it live:

The recorded version of the song is also marvelous.

I´ll leave the final word to Paddy Kavanagh himself:

“O commemorate me where there is water,

Canal water, preferably, so stilly

Greeny at the heart of summer…

…O commemorate me with no hero-courageous

Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.”

11 thoughts on “Song of the Week 19: On Raglan Road – Patrick Kavanagh/Luke Kelly

  1. My wife died of cancer in 1999, she was a great fan of Kavanagh’s and as part of her funeral service we had a lovely traditional group, uileann pipes etc, play “Fáinne Geal an Lae”

    1. Thanks for sharing that Kevin. It´s a beautiful melody. I sing the Raglan Road version myself with a guitar and sometimes a couple of friends who play traditional music. Uillean pipes are a lovely instrument. I´ve been meaning to record them for a traditional style song on my album if I can find someone here in Madrid who plays them.

  2. You’ve solved a mystery for me. I was at a funeral in Carlingford, Co. Louth last week and I said to my other half afterwards, did you notice they played On Raglan Road after the service? She hadn’t and wasn’t convinced. Now I know they were actually playing The Dawning of the Day. ORR is one of my favourite Irish songs, largely thanks to Sinead O’Connor’s take on it I find her voice very special and one of of the all-time great female voices. Even now she’s a bit wrecked her latest album has some amazing stuff on it. Her ORR is on a 1996 album of Irish music called Common Ground, accompanied by Donal Lunny. Bottom line on the sing – it’s a perfect combination of a great tune and a great poem. Super-romantic.

    1. She has a beautiful voice alright. That´s good I´ve cleared up that for you. I learn something about a song everytime I write one of these blogposts too. I hadn´t realised how old Dawning of the Day was. Just listening to the version you posted now. I sing it myself. It´s got a wonderful feeling to it. The lyric is up there with anything ever written. Donal Lunny´s parents actually lived beside my school in my hometown. He´s an amazing musician, love the uillean pipes, and want to record them on one of my songs, but difficult to find players when you´re living in Madrid. 🙂

  3. Here’s are a couple of example couplets from Sinead’s new record which really tickled me – they are from the only cover track on the record, John Grant’s ‘Queen of Denmark’, but she does a terrific job of highlighting what a great song it is and, I’d argue, makes it her own.

    I wanted to change the world
    But I could not even change my underwear

    I hope you know that all I want from you is sex
    To be with someone that looks smashing in athletic wear

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