The young American poet Claire McAllister, mentioned in today’s letters by Peadar MacMághnais, was also known to her friends as “Marmalade”. This was a reference to her one of her outstanding physical features, waist-length auburn hair.
The same feature should have ruled out any possibility that she was the subject of Patrick Kavanagh's ballad, On Raglan Road, which includes the inconvenient detail that the romantic interest had "dark" tresses. And history records that the song was in fact about another of his doomed love affairs, with Kerry medical student Hilda Moriarty, who went on to marry Donogh O'Malley instead. But for a time in 1948, apparently, Kavanagh managed to persuade McAllister that she was the one who had inspired it.
She had replaced Moriarty in his affections at the time. Kavanagh was inclined to fall in love early and often, and he had now fallen for McAllister just as precipitously; although as was often the case, the romance may have been tempered by other considerations.
In Patrick Kavanagh: a Biography (2001), Antoinette Quinn casts a cool eye on the Monaghan poet's thinking a the time: "Kavanagh remained optimistic that his stature as a writer would attract a rich wife in search of a trophy husband, and each publication, even of a single poem, renewed his hope that a female saviour would come charging to his long-term rescue with comfortable home and open chequebook."
McAllister must have seemed like a gift from God. She was the glamorous daughter of a Michigan judge: wealthy, cultivated, and visiting Dublin from Paris, where she was studying. Herself a budding poet, she was clearly impressed by a man more than 20 years her senior, with an established reputation.
“Happy to be admired by a beautiful young American, [Kavanagh] was at his most gallant and charming. He squired her about, steering her well clear of any rivals to himself, and before she left town presented her with a copy of [his collection] A Soul for Sale, which included a typescript of On Raglan Road. This lyric, she mistakenly believed, or was encouraged to believe, had been written for her.”
Alas, even though it had not, it foretold the outcome of the affair just as accurately. Kavanagh's nemesis this time turned out to be the rising young painter Patrick Swift, with whom McAllister became involved when she returned to Dublin in 1949.
Swift would later recall that when he first met Kavanagh, the latter greeted him as “nothing but a gurrier and a f**king intellectual fraud”. But they soon got over that early bump in the relationship to become good friends.
The next time they spoke, Swift had just been having lunch with another poet, Patrick MacDonagh, who was the latest target for Kavanagh’s scorn: “You shouldn’t be wastin’ your time with f**king phoneys like that,” he told Swift, adding: “I’ve been thinking about you and I think you may well be the real thing.”
Kavanagh’s enmities could be as fleeting as his love affairs, sometimes anyway. As for McAllister, he must have been well into recovery when they met again in New York in 1952. She had broken up with Swift by then and returned to Michigan. It was an amicable if not amorous reunion. According to Quinn: “He was happy to renew [her] acquaintance” over a series of dinners. They “even danced together”.
Kavanagh’s almost life-long bad luck with both love and money is illustrated by the sonnet Inniskeen Road July Evening, which portrays him as a poetic outcast, in voluntary but pained exile from the dance in Billy Brennan’s Barn. In reality, Quinn suggests, he would have happily been inside “if he could have afforded the fourpence admission price”.
The poem has in recent years inspired an annual festival in Inniskeen, with dancing, cycling, and other related events. Ironically, coronavirus has this year enabled the general public to share the poet’s isolation. In 2020, everybody will be locked out. The bicycles can go by in twos and threes all right, appropriately distanced, but the festival is off.
There is happier news for the dramatically refurbished Kavanagh Centre. After a €1 million facelift, it too was left all dressed up with nowhere to go by the pandemic. But the centre’s new manager Darren McCreesh – himself appointed just in time for the lockdown – tells me that the tremendous silence of mid-July will be (politely) disturbed by a low-key opening ceremony on July 20th. After that, the public will again be able to visit, although details are still being worked out.