Hilda's enchanted way

Dr Hilda O'Malley, wife of Donogh O'Malley and friend of Richard Harris, was the inspiration for Patrick Kavanagh's best-known poem. Dr John Wallace recounts working in Limerick with Dr O'Malley.

Hilda O'Malley was born in 1922 in Dingle, County Kerry but lived most of her life in Sunville on the South Circular Road and later nearby in Roses Avenue, off the Ennis Road, Limerick. Hilda originally wanted to be a writer but at sixteen her father, who was a doctor, brought her to Dublin and enrolled her in the medical school at UCD. One of her classmates at the time was Patrick Hillary who would go on to become President of Ireland. Her father told her as he enrolled her "I can leave you money but that's easily lost. Instead I will leave you something much better; a set of useful skills."

When Hilda's politician husband Donogh O'Malley died suddenly at a political meeting in Sixmilebridge in County Clare in 1968, leaving Hilda with two school-going children, she then understood what her father meant.

While at medical school, according to Antoinette Quinn author of the recent book on Patrick Kavanagh, Hilda was considered one of the most beautiful women in Dublin.

In 1946 she met Donogh O'Malley a young engineer from Limerick who would become one of the most well known ministers in the Irish government in the late 1960s. Hilda and Donogh married in August1947 and she met many well-known people when travelling with Donogh when he was Minister for Education. While she liked Fidel Castro, the president of Cuba, she was greatly impressed when she met President Kennedy.

Hilda herself had great presence, indeed she had been called to Hollywood for a screen test with a view to starring in a film but she lost out to Maureen O'Hara.

Hilda was just twenty-two years old and studying medicine when she first met Patrick Kavanagh in the autumn of 1944.

At that time the poet was living in a boarding house on Raglan Road in the centre of Dublin. In common with many others, he was very taken with Hilda at their first meeting and, as he put it himself, he "had it bad" for her.

In 1980, while Hilda was working as a doctor in Limerick, I asked her about Patrick Kavanagh. She said that one evening in Dublin she ran into the unemployed Kavanagh by accident. He told her that he had been having a difficulty writing. She said that she could well believe it as all he was good for was writing about "cattle and sheep". While she always treated him with kindness, she would also occasionally tease him. She then asked him could he not write about something interesting for a change! She told him that he would be better off writing about people rather than farmyards! He quickly became defensive and told her that of course he could write poems about people. In fact, he said , he would write a poem about a woman! She looked surprised and Patrick Kavanagh responded "Of course I can write a poem about a women." She then described how he turned to her with great seriousness and said "In fact, I'll write a poem about you!"

On Raglan Road on an autumn day
I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a
snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger yet walked along
the enchanted way
And I said let grief be like a fallen
leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Raglan Road, celebrates love at first sight and makes every location where Kavanagh met Hilda an "enchanted way". The reason Raglan Road is so popular is because it addresses the ever-interesting topic of unrequited love, it contains place-names and the poem was later set to the popular Irish melody The Dawning of the Day.

Kavanagh sang it to this air, in unmistakable manner, to Luke Kelly in the Bailey public house in Dublin in the late sixties. The song was also sung and made popular by Van Morrison.
When Hilda married Donogh O'Malley in 1947 Kavanagh was broken hearted. He did not forget her and kept a painting of Hilda propped up against the wall of his bed-sit in Dublin for some time afterwards. She did not see him again for many years and when she did he had become quite frail.

When he died in 1967, Hilda had not forgotten him either and she sent a wreath of roses.
After the sudden death of her husband Donogh in 1968, Hilda returned to work in Limerick as a medical doctor. She always regretted stopping work when married because, being a very outgoing person, she very much enjoyed medicine. What made her different, as a doctor, was that she never viewed medicine in isolation. Her interests were wide-ranging and she saw medicine in terms of wider issues such as housing, education and politics.

Her interest in politics was due to the is topic being discussed frequently with various politicians in the kitchen of her home, Sunville, on Limerick's North Circular Road.

Sunville was previously owned by the Cruise family, after whom Cruise Street in Limerick is named. Her interest in politics led her to run against Donogh's nephew Dessie O'Malley, for the seat left vacant by her deceased husband in 1968.

Her actor friend Richard Harris, who was then starring in the stage show Camelot, supported her political campaign. While campaigning for her he sang a hit song from the show from a campaign platform on O'Connell Street in Limerick. Her attempt to win the seat however was unsuccessful.
I last saw Hilda in 1987 when, having lost contact with her for some time, I eventually found her in an apartment overlooking the river Shannon near Clancy's Strand in Limerick.

She cut an isolated figure, yet she was as outgoing and as wide-ranging as ever in her conversation about politics and Limerick. Though looked after by her son Daragh, the actor, and Suzanne, a fashion designer, her health failed and in 1991 she moved in to a Dublin nursing home. According to her son, at the end she slipped into a coma but woke briefly and called for Donogh, her deceased husband. She then died quietly in her sleep. On a cold and wind-swept day she was buried in Limerick and joining her husband, the Minister of Education credited with introducing free education so many years previously. On the morning of her burial the Taoiseach of the day read On Raglan Road, the poem that Patrick Kavanagh had written about her, into the record of the Dail.

On a quiet street where old ghosts
meet I see her walking now

Dr John Wallace worked in Limerick with Dr Hilda O' Malley from 1977 until 1982.

Courtesy of the Limerick Leader
5 November 2005