The women who inspired famous Irish songs
Irish love songs such as On Raglan Road, Galway Girl, Nancy Spain, Past the Point of Rescue and The Voyage were all inspired by real people. Here are their stories
Johnny Duhan with his wife, Maureen, who inspired The Voyage. Photograph: courtesy Johnny Duhan
Joyce Redmond, the inspiration for Galway Girl, photographed in Arabica Coffee Shop in Galway, November 2015. Photograph: Gerard Hanberry
When Mundy dragged himself out of bed in a freezing cold house in Dublin to scramble for a pen and a scrap of paper, little did he know that his dark-hour scribblings would end up on an album that would sell over 11 million copies around the world. Following a farewell party for his young American girlfriend Kathryn Smeeth, whose visa was about to expire, Mundy found himself alone and heartbroken. She had been by his side throughout his early Grafton St busking years. Now she was gone and Mundy was feeling the pain of separation.
He was also feeling cold and tired that dark night but he recalled an interview he had read where Bob Dylan advised writers to welcome the Muse whenever she arrives. Mundy scribbled the lines of what would become his first hit song, To You I Bestow, on the back of a Yellow Pages phonebook. “It was a song that wrote itself out of sorrow and a big loss coming my way,” Mundy explained. “Young love is probably what moulds you. When the heart is yearning it speaks volumes.” Written when Mundy had yet to turn 20, the song was included on the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo + Juliet and made Mundy a star.
This is just one of the intriguing anecdotes I discovered while researching my new book, On Raglan Road – Great Irish Love Songs and the Women Who Inspired Them. The idea for the book came to me while preparing a talk on the stories behind some of Ireland’s well-loved songs for the Galway Percy French Society. I was moved by the evocative lyrics of French’s Gortnamona and surprised to find that it was inspired by the death of his beloved young wife, Ettie Armytage-Moore, following childbirth just a year and a day after their wedding. French’s heartbreak found expression in this haunting song.
My curiosity was now aroused and I began drawing up a list of similarly poignant Irish songs whose origins might be worth exploring. The ancient Gaelic love song Úna Bhán came to mind and I discovered that Douglas Hyde had included it in his famous book, Love Songs of Connaught. It is a tragic Romeo-and-Juliet tale. Úna of the Mac Dermott clan fell in love with Tomás of the Costello clan, their detested enemies. It ended in their deaths. Ah, love songs! I had it now. It was time to focus on some contemporary compositions.
First stop was On Raglan Road, a song that features at almost every social gathering. But who was the girl whose “dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue”, as Kavanagh put it? The answer lay in Antoinette Quinn’s book Patrick Kavanagh – A Biography (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 2003). Her name was Hilda Moriarty, a young student from Kerry studying medicine at UCD. She was only 22 when Kavanagh “saw her first and knew”. He was in his early forties and couldn’t understand her reluctance to become romantically involved. She went on to marry the politician Donogh O’Malley.
Fascinating! But now I needed to do some research of my own. Who, I wondered, was the woman who haunted Mick Hanly’s dreams in that wonderful song of lost love, Past the Point of Rescue? And who were The Frank and Walters singing about in that great 1990s pop song, After All? Could there be a real Galway Girl still waiting “on the old Long Walk” for her lover who had to go home just because he had a return ticket? And could there have been a real-life Nancy Spain? When I had gathered the often unexpected answers to those and many more similar questions I knew I had a book on my hands. The Collins Press thought so too and we were away.
Some of the answers surprised me. Maud Gonne did not inspire Yeats to write Down By The Salley Gardens. It was, in fact, his first love, a flirtatious young red-haired girl from Howth called Edith Laura Armstrong and there is indeed a real Galway Girl but she too is originally from Howth. The song Grace does not date from the Easter Rising. It was written in 1985 by Sean and Frank O’Meara and Joseph Plunkett did not hold Grace Gifford in his arms as the song suggests. They were not allowed to touch or to converse during the macabre ceremony in Kilmainham Gaol. The lyrics of Danny Boy were written by an Englishman and a young Johnny Duhan was first attracted to the woman who would become his wife and inspiration for The Voyage because she was the only girl at the Granny’s Intentions gig wearing a mini skirt. As Mundy said, “the yearning heart” does indeed speak volumes.
Gerard Hanberry is the author of On Raglan Road – Great Irish Love Songs and the Women Who Inspired Them, published in hardback by The Collins Press, price €17.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online