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John Montague: An Ulster Catholic who was ‘a marooned northerner and an apprentice southerner’

The charismatic poet whose intimacy and boldness continues to inspire was born 95 years ago

When a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur and the first-ever Ireland Professor of Poetry, John Montague, died in the Clinique du Parc Imperial at Nice, a powerful and turbulent adventure in Ulster poetry quite suddenly came to an end. This week, had he lived, the great poet would be celebrating his 95th birthday.

Montague was born in the same decade as Irish Partition and his life spanned the entire era of our modern Ireland with its two parliaments. That he is now buried in his family townland in Tyrone, a county in the United Kingdom, must be a constant reminder to his faithful readers of that constitutional fracture in Irish politics and its implacable continuity. Montague’s settled view of Ireland, and indeed of everything else, was the settled view of an Ulster Catholic. But he wasn’t just any old Catholic; he was the university-graduate nephew of Jesuits, his Aunt Winifred playing Tantum Ergo Sacramentum on the church harmonium, his cousin being Cardinal MacRory whose mother was a Montague. This bourgeois Catholic milieu was a circle of postmasters, company directors and farmers whose settled comfort was ruined by the formation of an exclusively Protestant administration in Belfast. In the Republic we refuse to admit how betrayed that middle-class Catholic population felt at the happy consolidation of our own Free State.

This betrayal still defines the consciousness of many Ulster intellectuals as well as Gaelic footballers. Their sense of the unforgiving gaze, of withholding admiration for the ebullient South, is still a core element in the discourse of nationalist Ulster. John Montague understood this situation with a shrewd awareness and he and I discussed it many times. If anything, that gap between Catholic North and Catholic South has worsened over the years; and Montague foresaw that it would worsen from his 1940s UCD perspective of living what he so accurately described as “a marooned northerner and an apprentice southerner”.

John Montague has left us an immense treasury of poetry that has been preserved mainly through the efforts of two publishers, Peter Fallon and Dillon Johnson. His Collected Poems (1995) is an impressive and beautiful book, a vigorous monument, more living and unsettling than many a contemporary volume of poems. It’s the life’s work of an Ulster child born and nurtured in faraway Brooklyn before he was sent back to Ireland at the age of four. In being transplanted, he lost “the electric light” of New York, as he was wont to complain, and returned to the candle and oil lamp of a more primitive rural Tyrone.


When he began as a poet it was this world that fed his imagination, an early aesthetic that created poems like The Water Carrier, The Sean Bhean Bhocht and Like Dolmens Round My Childhood. But there was another, modernising instinct also in Montague, an instinct that was nurtured by his early adult years in America. His more profane modernist impulses accrued inside brilliant collections like A Chosen Light (1967) and Tides (1971). At UCD, he had been part of that fiercely clever and elaborately well-read circle of Anthony Cronin, Pearse Hutchinson and John Jordan. They were all poets together, edging into The Bell and Envoy. It’s true that all of them could easily have become novelists in the manner of Seán Ó Faoláin or Francois Mauriac; and all would successfully try prose, both fiction and non-fiction, over the years.

That Montague could attract the fervent loyalty of worldly and high-quality people is testament to his very real charismatic power

Like Yeats, Montague’s autobiographical writing is superb. No writer has ever got so close to describing the power of that Dublin friendship between Beckett and Con Leventhal in Paris, where Montague worked as an Irish Times correspondent. His descriptions of his own many encounters with Beckett at the Cloiserie des Lilas or in the side bar of La Coupole are sharp and hilarious: “I stammered, so we found ourselves in the absurd situation of someone who found it hard to speak engaging someone who didn’t believe in conversation.” By 1971 he had travelled the world: to study at Iowa’s famous Poetry Workshop, to reach Yale on a Fulbright, to revisit Paris and to teach at Berkeley. He writes brilliantly and humorously of that era in his densely beautiful memoirs Company (Duckworth) and The Pear is Ripe (Liberties Press). By the 1960s he had moved from the influence of Yeats and Kavanagh to the even wilder cadences of Snyder, Berryman and the priestly Robert Duncan.

He was, as he said to film-maker Sé Merry Doyle, “brought up a little Ulster Catholic being plunged into a sea of cheerful pleasures”. Those cheerful pleasures he enthusiastically hauled aboard. As Peter Fallon observed in an Irish Book Awards tribute “He wanted to write a poetry that was simple and serious, and passionate.” This new Miltonic aesthetic he certainly achieved, and one can see its development in a poem like Life Class from Tides, or 11 rue Daguerre from A Chosen Light:

“At night, sometimes, when I cannot sleep

I go to the atelier door

And smell the earth of the garden.

It exhales softly,

Especially now, approaching springtime,

When tendrils of green are plaited

Across the humus, desperately frail…”

Detail of scent and sensuous observation were a sea-change or, rather, the opening-up of a new imaginative vein in Montague. Such closely observed physicality would be a key driver and propulsive force of his poetry from that time onward. By the early 1970s, seriously adrift and yet again in love, he was invited to teach at UCC by the poet Seán Lucy who was hugely impressed by the ambition of The Rough Field (1972). The next two decades were a period during which he produced a series of fiery and brilliant collections, including The Great Cloak, A Slow Dance and The Dead Kingdom. He also took over the task of editing The Faber Book of Irish Verse from Valentin Iremonger and he edited, for Scribners, his lively anthology of Irish poetry, Bitter Harvest. This was also the era when his fame seemed to settle as he began to win various literary awards. Montague was also blessed with his friendships throughout his life.

In being transplanted, he lost ‘the electric light’ of New York, as he was wont to complain, and returned to the candle and oil lamp of a more primitive rural Tyrone

He was especially blessed in the quality of the people who admired him, from Garech de Brún of the Guinness dynasty to Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, to the polymath Renaissance-man of UCC, Prof Gerard Wrixon. That Montague could attract the fervent loyalty of such worldly and high-quality people is testament to his very real charismatic power. His charisma was a very real thing and those who never met him will never be able to credit its powerful effect.

What is so impressive about Montague’s work is that its intimacy and boldness has transferred easily to a new generation of poets. The way contemporary female poets especially write out of a Jungian complexity of sexual experience – physical love inclusive of adamant motherhood and creativity – has echoes of Montague’s own best work. In his 1989 essay Women and Love in Early Irish poetry, he stated that “the female imagination has been present in Irish from its earliest lyrics to the 18th century and certainly down to the present. And women in Irish poetry were always more than equal.” He was sure of a Gaelic love’s shared grandeur and he celebrated it continuously, in the passionate manner of Máire Mhac an tSaoí, even in the later collections like Mount Eagle or in the posthumously published Second Childhood.

For his 80th birthday tribute book, Chosen Lights, poets of the calibre of Eavan Boland and Vona Groarke praised Montague’s abiding lyrical presence in Irish life; Groarke writing of how his “steady hand wrestles language to calmness” and “that his is a dedicated, wise, ample and forceful gift”. In the same volume, the poet Rosita Boland favoured Montague’s Hearth Song for its “kinetic energy” and its “sensation of knowing you have experienced something important, without knowing why it was so”. Sara Berkeley also wrote of how Montague “digs deep into human emotions with his plain style”. In that celebratory book one can see, as Auden observed, how an ageing poet eventually becomes his admirers. This process of osmosis will only continue as the years pass and the ambition of his poetic trajectory becomes clear.

On what would have been his 95th birthday it is important to remember him; to celebrate the long career of a writer who was, in the words of Derek Mahon “the best Irish poet of his generation”.

Thomas McCarthy is a Co Waterford poet whose work was first published in The Irish Times in 1971. Later this year The Gallery Press will publish a selection of his essays