Montague died on Saturday at the Clinique Parc Impérial in Nice. He was 87, and had recently undergone surgery.
Photographer to the stars John Minihan was holding a picture of Montague in his hand when the Irish Examiner contacted him. He last saw his good friend this summer.
“He was such a gracious man,” said Minihan. “I had lunch twice with him and Elizabeth [Wassel, his American novelist wife] twice in Nice last July when I was over the Francis Bacon exhibition in Monte Carlo.
“We had lunch, then drinks and ended up in a jazz bar. He was 87 years of age but his head was as mischevious as ever.”
Montague, who was born in the US but reared in Co Tyrone, and Minihan were friends for 22 years, both owning cottages just five minutes from one another in Ballydehob.
“He was one of the first people to discover Samuel Beckett, writing about him for the Guardian in the 1950s,” said Minihan.
“The last time I saw him in Ballydehob was when John Calder, Beckett’s publisher came to visit and I photographed both of them walking on the back roads of West Cork.”
Waterford-born poet Thomas McCarthy was one of Montague’s former students at UCC. He described Montague as a “crucially important poet” and said his brilliance wasn’t lost on his students.
Montague lectured in poetry and specialised in the works of 18th century poets such as Alexander Pope and Oliver Goldsmith.
“In the 1970s, he taught and encouraged an entire generation of young poets,” said McCarthy. “He was also great at introducing us to his friends, to some of his very distinguished friends. He connected us students to a poetry world that mattered to him bringing the English poet, Robert Graves and Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid to UCC.”
Amongst his students at UCC were poets Maurice Riordan, Theo Dorgan, Gerry Murphy, Sean Dunne, Greg Delanty, Liz O’Donoghue, and Patrick Cotter.
Montague was also a founder member of Aosdána, the Irish artists collective.
Brian Lynch of Aosdána described Montague as a man who “spoke truth and peace to his Protestant neighbours”.
“He played an important part in the renaissance of Irish music, through Claddagh Records, which he established with Garech Browne; he played, along with Thomas Kinsella, a pioneering role in Irish publishing, through the Dolmen Press; he was an inspiring teacher of young writers, particularly in Cork; he was a notable critic, novelist, short story writer, and memoirist.
“But, above all, he was a poet. His poetry has, in the words of Thomas McCarthy, ‘an expansive fluency and national grandeur… a splendid, exceptional integrity: it ebbs and flows and shimmers like the tide’.”
On Twitter, singer Hozier wrote: “He leaves us with so much. Rest in peace.”
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness described him as “one of Ireland’s greatest poets”.
Other former students of Montague’s, including broadcasters John Creedon and Matt Cooper, tweeted messages of tribute.