On Raglan Road

It is a quiet evening when I enter the Limerick City Library for the first time. I am there to attend Gerard Hanberry’s reading. It is early, and guests have not yet arrived. I love the silence of the library. I decide to have a walk around, wandering among the shelves, leafing through the books and wondering which silent stories they have to tell, between the noisy lines of their pages.

It is not a random thought, however, for this is the question implied in the theme of the event: Great Irish love songs and the women who inspired them. Hanberry’s book, On Raglan Road, whose title quotes one of the most known Irish songs, seems to be willing to go beyond what is written, beyond the verses and the metric, beyond the rhymes and the stanzas, looking for the real essence of the songs.

Little by little, people start arriving. They know each other, greet each other, and choose where to sit. Most of their faces are still unfamiliar to me, yet I feel that the atmosphere is friendly: some read a newspaper, some chat, others prefer having a look at the information pamphlets, maybe looking for their next trip to the cliffs of Moher.

When it’s time to start, Gerard Hanberry goes up a low dais, like the ones used at school in the old times, when teachers used to arise over our sleepy pupils’ heads. But no one of us is sleepy, and Mr. Hanberry’s wit is able to drag anyone’s attention in spite of the odd technical problems

A sort of melancholy spreads from the first texts analysed: Requiescat and To My Wife, by Oscar Wilde, and James Joyce’s short story, The dead. Words which speak about beloved people now dead, but at the same time, able to immortalize them. In this sense, Wilde’s little sister, Isola, who died at the age of 9, still lives in the sweet poem, Requiescat, echoing in a pronoun which hides her name but keeps her soul. In Joyce’s novel, the memory of young Michael Furey, the first and unforgettable love of Gretta, is recalled to the mind by a song, The Lass of Aughrim, which the boy used to sing. Gabriel’s epiphany of not being the first love of his wife reflects Joyce’s own sadness, as he was aware of all the lovers Nora had had before him, and it was also transposed in his poem, She weeps over Rahoon.

From this moment on, Gerard Hanberry accompanied the reading with his own performances of the songs. The sound of the guitar shaped then the well-known Irish lyrics, as some brave spectators joined shyly the singing.

Down by the Salley Gardens, whose text was composed by W.B. Yeats, was then transposed into a song by Herbert Hughes on an Irish melody, The Maids of the Mourne Shore. Even though many people think it was dedicated to Maud Gonne, Yeats’ most famous unreturned love, two other women inspired the poem: Laura Armstrong, his first love, and Katharine Tynan, the author of The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Apart from them, there is another woman, whose name is still unknown: an old peasant in Sligo, whom he heard singing You Rambling Boys of Pleasure, another old Irish song.

On Ragland Road, the tune which gives the title to the book, shares the same destiny of unreturned love. Its author, Patrick Kavanagh, composed the lyrics about a young woman from Dingle living in Dublin he fell in love with, Hilda Moriarty. “I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way”, says Kavanagh, while walking along the path which is common to those who find in an unreturned love the inspiration for their poems. The struggle and the melancholy flowing through the lyrics follow the rhythm given by Luke Kelly’s banjo, filling the library with nostalgia, and cradling memories of “creatures made of clay”.

And as the last notes of Gortnamona, by Percy French, fades into applauses, I can’t help wondering if it’s selfish of me being so thankful to all those women who were cause of suffering in these men’s lives.

For when Poetry and Music meet Love, often unreturned, then the most struggling and moving lyrics are given birth.


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Caterina Celli

Intern, Limerick Writers’ Centre

limerickwriterscentre@gmail.com ׀ www.limerickwriterscentre.com

12 Barrington Street, Limerick, Ireland