Painful childhood didn’t dim the twinkle in John Montague's eyes

Adrian Frazier pays tribute to the late poet John Montague, who passed away at the weekend
Painful childhood didn’t dim the twinkle in John Montague's eyes

John Montague came from a family that, though Catholic in sectarian Tyrone, was very distinguished in the 19th century — a justice of the peace, a bishop — but his father and uncle had to go on the run after the Civil War.

So he was born in 1929 to a barman in Brooklyn, and then aged four was sent home to be raised by maiden aunts on the old family farm in Garvaghey.

But why were his older brothers kept with his mother over eight miles away in Fintona? That question was a lasting trouble to him, which he explored in painfully self-probing poems.

Growing up a single boy in a house haunted by the ghosts of his paternal ancestors, raised by sorrowing, lonely republican women, in a province constricted by ever-increasing sectarianism, gave him an experience as heartache and indignation that after 1968 the world would have to face as a general Ulster emergency.

A prize student at St Patrick’s College, Armagh, he won a county scholarship to UCD (1946-49), where he became the friend or rival of such literary luminaries as Denis Donoghue, John Jordan, Pearse Hutchinson, and Tony Cronin — what a class!

From 1953 to ’56, he studied in America, at Yale with the New Critics, in Iowa with John Berryman, and at Berkeley along with Allen Ginsberg. He had a way of always being where things were happening, and over time learned the trick of making them happen wherever he happened to be.

In 1956, he married Madeleine de Brauer of a French aristocratic family, and returned to dreary Dublin.

Along with his Herbert Street neighbour Brendan Behan, he did a lot to make it less dreary, and bring to life the value of the work of others, especially his previously neglected elders, John Hewitt, Patrick Kavanagh, and Austin Clarke.

John Montague near his home in Ballydehob, Co Cork.
John Montague near his home in Ballydehob, Co Cork.

He had been, he came to think, just looking for a father. As agent for Claddagh Records and MacGibbon and Kee Publishers, he did his best to ‘gather from the air a live tradition’.

After a decade in Dublin, he gave up his permanent job at Bord Failte to become a full-time writer, while Madeleine took a post with the Patronat in Paris. The couple settled on the Rue Daguerre, not far from the haunts of Samuel Beckett, soon to be a drinking companion.

Meanwhile, Liam Miller at Dolmen Press worked with Montague on editions of his first poems (Forms of Exile, 1956), and from 1963, the chaplets that would ultimately form The Rough Field (1973), a monument of ‘Troubles’ poetry. People will still be reading it when all those reading this sentence are dead and gone.

His second great sequence, The Great Cloak (1978), fulfills Montague’s promise to his first wife not to ‘betray our truth’, in writing about the pain of divorce and delight in the birth of his daughter Oonagh, by Evelyn Robson Montague, in 1973; their second daughter Sibyl was born in 1979. This poetic sequence is like a heart-scalding novel with chapters that are lyrics, and ending in romance. A new form.

Upon the invitation of Professor Sean Lucy in 1972, John Montague had begun to teach at UCC. He and Evelyn settled high on Grattan Hill.

What happened in Cork after he went there — Thomas McCarthy, Nuala Ní Dhomnaill, Gregory O’Donoghue, Maurice O’Riordan, Theo Dorgan, Louis de Paor, Greg Delanty — too many fine poets to list them all… would it all have happened without the twinkle of his eye?

Montague may not have been the most devoted lecturer or engaged exam-marker, but to Cork he brought bards such as Robert Graves and Hugh MacDiarmuid, and brilliant young Irish poets such as Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon.

On their visits, he and Evelyn opened the door of their house to the young and talented. The poets of Belfast got all the press during the Troubles, but the shower of talent from Cork from the 1970s and ’80s is looking stronger and stronger as the decades roll on.

All through Montague’s life, given his childhood, even after the great 1968 passion with Evelyn, and the two beloved girls, he sought for proof of love, and suffered helplessly from the precedence of other men, and doubt about why he had been passed over.

This deep psychic material is explored alongside the story of his driving north for the burial of his mother in Tyrone in The Dead Kingdom (1984).

Such autobiographical candor was, although it had empurpled American confessional poetry, new to Irish literature, and Irish culture.

His way of seeing his relations to women through Robert Graves’ myths about ‘the Muse’ won him few friends among the new generation of Irish feminist poets and critics.

The old poet won his way to a philosophical freedom from these early determinants of personality, during his final happy marriage (all three were all happy in their way) to the American writer Elizabeth Wassell, whom he met during his term (1985-98) as writer-in-residence at the State University of New York, Albany.

Since he left New York to become the first Ireland Professor of Poetry, readers have covered him in love: every house in which he spoke was a full house, and at the end — stammer or no stammer — everyone was up on their feet to applaud.

After all, it’s not every day you get to see a great poet. And it is not every great poet that lives to see himself recognised rapturously for what he is.

When Miriam O’Callaghan asked him on the radio recently what he thought, now he was coming towards the end of his journey, he replied, quick as a wink, ‘Give me more, give me more.’

To the end, he kept his grin, and that fantastic gaiety in his brightly twinkling eyes.

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