One of the greatest love songs of the 20th century
A personal view by Pat Kehoe
I regard Raglan Road as one of the greatest love songs of the 20th century.
That’s not to say that it is perfect, far from it. In some ways it’s a flawed masterpiece but that doesn’t matter, because what makes it good more than makes up for any failings.
Its genius is that it captures so brilliantly the self-destructive recklessness that otherwise rational people can display when they fall in love – no matter how old or mature they think they are.
Kavanagh was 40 at the time of the affair and the girl, student Hilda Moriarty, was only 22. In an interview in 1987, Moriarty said the age gap was the main reason the relationship failed.
Verse One – the song begins to weave its snare
As soon as sees her for the first time walking along Raglan Road he has a sense of foreboding.
He immediately fears “that her dark hair would weave a snare that I would one day rue”.
His rational mind sees the threat straightaway but this is a matter of the heart and the rational is cast aside. The enormity of this abandonment is all the greater because Kavanagh fully understands his recklessness but cannot stop himself.
“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”
Who hasn’t let their heart rule their head?
These lines pull us and make us empathise with Kavanagh straightaway because who hasn’t let their heart rule their head – regardless of the consequences.
This is the crux of the song and we’re presented with it straightaway in this brilliant opening verse.
He presses on with this relationship because he cannot help himself. The grief that he knows must eventually come will be treated as a triviality, a mere “fallen leaf” in comparison to the enchantment, the irresistible necessity of following his heart.
Verse Two – on the edge of the dark ravine
The relationship begins with mixed feelings. On Grafton Street they “tripped lightly” which suggests they have a spring in their step, as might be expected of two lovers beginning a relationship.
But it also suggests moving cautiously as they are on the “ledge of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge”.
The deep ravine suggests the split between them that Kavanagh fears will inevitably come and it also suggests an abyss of despair that would follow when the relationship ended.
The pain of separation is what he expects for his “passion’s pledge” when he pursued the girl against his better judgement.
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts
The relationship is uneven because it means more to Kavanagh than it does to the girl. This is expressed in the line the “Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay”.
The girl is the queen of Kavanagh’s heart and there’s an allusion to the queen in Alice in Wonderland who made tarts.
The fact that Kavanagh’s queen is “still making tarts” is not to be taken literally. It merely suggests that the girl is still going about her daily business unaffected by any emotional complications.
Kavanagh, by contrast, is not making hay – an allusion to his agricultural background. Again, this is not to be taken literally, it simply means he is not making any progress in trying to get her to return his love and he may also be unable to work properly and go about his daily business.
He had “loved too much” and because of that his happiness is being thrown away.