Discover the Irish women who have inspired poetry and music

Jonathan deBurca Butler meets the author of a book on Irish women who have inspired poetry and song
Discover the Irish women who have inspired poetry and music

LIKE most Irish people worth their salt, Gerry Hanberry has heard On Raglan Road hundreds of times, and probably sung it dozens more. For years, his ears would prick up when people discussed the woman that poet Patrick Kavanagh had seen on that fateful Autumn Day. Such was the number and variation of those accounts that Gerry decided he had better find the truth.

“I was amazed at these different ideas about the woman in the song,” says the poet and biographer. “I even met a few women who claimed it was them. But of course with a bit of investigation, it was strongly obvious that it was a woman named Hilda Moriarty. That got me to thinking about the idea of muses in poetry and song so I thought I’d find out about other songs too. There is a whole treasure trove of great songs inspired by these women.”

Hilda Moriarty was a 22-year-old medical student in University College Dublin when Kavanagh, twenty years her senior, met her in 1944. The poet became obsessed with her. Alas, this song, written at Hilda’s suggestion was not enough to woo her. This is a theme that runs consistent through Gerry’s new book On Raglan Road - Great Irish Love Songs and the Women who Inspired Them.

“All of the songs are about loss or unrequited love,” he says. “Some of them are very sad. Of them all, the one that affected me the most was probably Mick Hanly’s Past the Point of Rescue because how he came to write it was very poignant. It was about young love that starts out naively but beautifully, and then goes wrong for all the cliched reasons — a musician’s life and life on the road. It just went wrong.”

“Of course, the reward was this great song, but there’s a sadness in it and you can feel it in the lyrics,” continues Gerry. “And I’ll be honest, Mick was a little hesitant telling me about it but over the course of an afternoon here in my own house we managed to piece it together and it’s fascinating.”

Mick Hanly was not the only one who had trouble raking over his past. Indeed, getting contemporary songwriters to spill the beans on their former romances proved more troublesome than the love stories of those who are no longer with us.

“If you think about it, it is a touchy enough subject,” says Gerry. “Relationships break down and people move on. So not all the songwriters I approached agreed to do it and that’s fair enough.”

One of those who did speak up was the ever-amiable Mundy who took Gerry through his early hit song To You I Bestow.

“That was a massive deal for him,” explains Gerry. “It was included in the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack that went on to sell millions, but the story behind it is quite interesting.”

“He was only a young fella when he wrote it, and he told me that the night after the farewell party for the girl who inspired the song, he was lying in bed when the words for the lyrics came into his head. He got up and wrote them on the back of a Golden Pages. He had heard the Bob Dylan mantra about your best ideas coming to you at night and getting out of bed to write them down so you didn’t lose them. It paid off for him.”

One of Mundy’s more recent hits was, of course, a cover of Galway Girl. The Steve Earle song is another of the 14 songs investigated by Gerry in his book. So who is she?

“I actually tracked her down and spoke to her,” says Gerry. “She’s originally from Howth in Dublin but she had Galway connections and she is living in Galway now. Actually one of the interesting things about the song is the opening line ‘I took a walk down the Old Long Walk’. They actually didn’t meet there but in a cafe nearby. Subsequently, they took many walks down the Old Long Walk but they didn’t meet there.”

Gerry’s book is full of these little nuggets. We find out that Yeats’ Down by the Sally Gardens was not inspired by Maud Gonne but by another woman. We discover that the real Nancy Spain was a far cry from the image portrayed in the song that eulogises her name and we get insights into the two-year relationship that inspired many of the Frank and Walters best loved numbers.

“I really enjoyed writing this because it brought together all the things I’m interested in,” says Gerry. “I’m very compartmentalised in my life. I write non-fiction, I’m a published poet, I write songs, I play in a band and I’ve written biographies. So with this book all those circles seemed to intersect, they all came together. It brought all my personal interests together. I was very comfortable with it.”

Kavanagh’s muse weaved yet another snare and from it comes this very worthwhile book.

On Raglan Road - Great Irish Love Songs and the Women who Inspired Them was published by Collins on September 30

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