Exploring Michael Hartnett’s early development as a poet….

Bridget Halpin’s Small Farm in Camas

Formative Influences on the young Michael Hartnett

brigid-halpins-cottage-today

Brigid Halpin’s cottage in Camas as it is today. The photograph is by Dermot Lynch.

 

Bridget Halpin, formerly Bridget Roche, was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale in 1885 to parents John Roche and Marie Moloney.  According to parish records in Abbeyfeale, she married Michael Halpin from Camas, near Newcastle West, in Abbeyfeale Church on February 28th,1911 in what was, by all accounts, ‘a made match’ between both families and she then came to live in Camas where the Halpins owned a small farm of ten acres three roods and 13 perches.  Later on that year on April 2nd, 1911, the Census returns for Camas in the parish of Monagea, record Michael Halpin, aged 36, living with his new wife Bridget Halpin, then aged 26.  Michael’s mother Johanna, aged 74, and her daughter, Michael’s sister, Johanna, aged 23, also lived in the house.

Michael Halpin, Bridget’s husband, was born on 2nd June 1876 in Camas.  He was one of thirteen children born to Denis Halpin and Johanna Browne between 1866 and 1890.  Denis Halpin, Michael’s father, was born c. 1834 in Cleanglass, in the parish of Killeedy, and he married Johanna Browne on the 18th February 1865 in the Catholic Church in Tournafulla.  He was 31 years of age and Johanna Browne was 25.  Living conditions were very harsh and infant mortality was very high and as many as seven of their thirteen children died in their infancy or childhood due, no doubt, to the severity and austerity of the times.  Six of their thirteen children survived: Margaret, Kate, Michael, Denis, Cornelius, Johanna.

This woman, Bridget Halpin, would later wield great influence over her young grandson Michael Hartnett.  Indeed, if we are to believe the poet, she was the one who first affirmed his poetic gift when one day he told her that a nest of young wrens had alighted on his head – her reply to him was, ‘Aha, You’re going to be a poet!’.  Hartnett claimed that he spent much of his early childhood in Bridget Halpin’s cottage in the rural townland of Camas four miles from his home in nearby Newcastle West.   He went on to immortalise this woman in many of his poems but especially in his beautiful poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”.  This quiet townland of Camas is seen as central to his development as a poet and central to some of the decisions and seismic changes which he made in his poetic direction in the 1970’s.  Maybe in time, this early association with Camas will be given its rightful importance and the little rural townland will vie with Maiden Street or Inchicore as one of Hartnett’s important formative places.  This essay, therefore, is an effort to throw some light on this woman and gently probe her background and genealogy and it also seeks to untangle some of the myths, many self-generated, which have grown up around Michael Hartnett himself.

In April 1911 when the Census was compiled, there were four inhabitants of the thatched cottage in Camas: Michael Halpin, his new wife Bridget (née Roche), his mother Johanna and his sister Johanna who was soon to emigrate to the United States in late May 1911.  By June of that year, Michael and Bridget Halpin were setting out on their married life together and they also had the care of Michael’s mother, Johanna.  Over the coming years, they had six children together, Josie, Mary, Peg, Denis, Bridget (later to be Michael Hartnett’s mother) and Ita.  Unfortunately, Michael Halpin died in September 1920 at the age of 44 approx. having succumbed to pneumonia.  His daughter Ita was born seven months later on 23rd March 1921.  Bridget Halpin was now left with the care of her six young children and their ailing grandmother, Johanna.  Johanna Halpin (née Browne) died in Camus on 18th June 1921 aged 80 years of age.

Bridget Halpin’s plight was now stark and the harshness of her existence is often alluded to in her grandson’s poems which feature her.  The cottage which was little more than a three roomed thatched mud cabin built of stone and yellow mud collapsed around 1926.   The whole family were taken in, in an extraordinary gesture of neighbourliness, by Con Kiely until a new cottage was built a short distance away by a Roger Creedon for the princely sum of £70.  The family moved into their new home in 1931 and this is the structure that still stands today.  According to Michael Hartnett himself this cottage, and especially the mud cabin which preceded it, was renowned as a ‘Rambling House’, a cottage steeped in history, music, song, dance, cardplaying and storytelling.  Hartnett would have us believe that it was from the loft in this cottage that he began to pick up his first words of Irish from his grandmother and her cronies as they gathered to play cards or tell tall tales.

Bridget Halpin’s youngest daughter, Ita Halpin, later married John Joe Dore, who lived on a neighbouring farm.  He was a well-known sportsman, hurling historian and founder member of Killeedy GAA Club.  They had one son, Joe Dore, who today is a well known Traffic Warden in Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale.  Today, he is the owner of what was formerly Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas, having inherited it from his uncle, Denis Halpin.   John Joe Dore died in 2000 aged 85.   Bridget Halpin, immortalised by her grandson, Michael Hartnett, in his poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ is buried with her daughter Ita Halpin (Dore) in the grounds of the old abbey in Castlemahon Cemetery.  Her grave is as yet unmarked.

Ita Halpin’s sister, Bridget Mary, who was born on 1st May 1918 later married Denis Harnett (born 20th July 1914) from North Quay, Newcastle West on the 28th of June 1941 in Newcastle West and they had six children.  Michael Hartnett[1] was the eldest and he had one sister, Mary, and four brothers, William, Denis, Gerard, and John. (Two siblings, Patricia and Edmond, also died as infants). Times were difficult for the Harnett family; they did, however, receive some good fortune when they moved into a house, in the newly built local authority development, Assumpta Park, in the 1950s.   Joe Dore, Michael’s first cousin, recalls that during the war years (1941-1945 in Michael’s case) Michael was often brought to Camas in a donkey and cart to be looked after by his grandmother and his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin), who was now working ‘the small farm’.   Joe Dore recalls that ‘his other brothers came to stay as well, especially Bill, but Michael, being the eldest, was the favourite of his grandmother’ – no doubt because he was her daughter Bridget’s first-born and also that he had been called Michael after her late husband.   Joe Dore remembers that ‘Michael was a big boy when I knew him as he was twelve years older than me, as I was the last of the grandchildren to be reared by my grandmother and Uncle Denis also’.

This essay seeks to clarify some of Michael Hartnett’s claims concerning his grandmother, Bridget Halpin.  Interestingly, most of these erroneous claims stem quite remarkably from the poet himself!  His Wikipedia page tells us that,

…  his grandmother, was one of the last native speakers to live in Co. Limerick, though she was originally from North Kerry. He claims that, although she spoke to him mainly in English, he would listen to her conversing with her friends in Irish, and as such, he was quite unaware of the imbalances between English and Irish, since he experienced the free interchange of both languages.

Writing in the Irish Times in August 1975  Hartnett wrote:

My first contact with Gaelic – as a living language – was in 1945 when I went to stay with my grandmother.  She was a “native” speaker and had been born in North Kerry in the early 1880s.  She rarely used Gaelic for conversation purposes but a good fifty percent of her vocabulary was Gaelic – more especially those words for plants, birds, farm implements, etc. …….. I learnt some two thousand words and phrases from her.  It was not until her death in 1967 that I realised I had known a woman who embodied a thousand years of Gaelic history (Hartnett, ‘Why Write in Irish?’, p.133).

We have already noted that Bridget Roche (neé Halpin) was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale, County Limerick.  While this area is steeped in Irish culture and music it was not particularly noted for its native Irish speakers in the late 1800’s.  In the 1901 Census returns for Camas Upper and Camas Lower respondents were asked a question concerning their knowledge of the Irish language.  In Camas Upper and Lower 36 people out of a total of  175 counted in the census stated that they were proficient in ‘Irish and English’, including Johanna Halpin, Bridget Halpin’s future mother-in-law.  This works out at 20% of respondents.  In the 1911 Census returns, the year Bridget Roche married Michael Halpin, respondents were asked the same question and 29 adults responded.  In the 1911 Census, there is no division of the townland and the total number enumerated in the Census is lower at 141.  The percentage of respondents who said they had proficiency in Irish and English remains at 20%, however.  Interestingly, and this may, of course, suggest a certain carelessness in compiling the statistics of the census on behalf of the local enumerator, there is nothing in the returns for the Halpin family to suggest that they are proficient in Irish, although both Johanna and Bridget are marked present.

His often repeated claims about Bridget Halpin’s prowess in the Irish language are, therefore, exaggerated.  She obviously had many phrases and sayings in Irish but it is very doubtful if she had the capacity to carry out a conversation in Irish. Therefore, the myth that Michael Hartnett picked up a new language by osmosis or by listening to Bridget, ‘the native Irish speaker’ or her cronies while he lay in the loft during acrimonious card games is largely that, a myth.  The reality is that his love of the language was also developed by his study of and admiration for the poets of the Maigue and the Bardic past.  It was also helped by his study of Irish in school, in Irish College in Ballingeary and by his association with many poets and dramatists writing in Irish and also by his relationships in the early nineteen-sixties, particularly his relationship and collaboration with Caithlín Maude and his later collaboration in the 1980’s with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, translating her first volume, Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, into English.

Hartnett’s public comments and writings also cause some confusion concerning Bridget Halpin’s age.  In the acclaimed documentary directed by Pat Collins in 1999, shortly before Hartnett’s untimely demise, entitled ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, Hartnett states that Bridget Halpin was born in 1870, when in fact we know from Census returns that she was born in 1885.  He also states that she was 93 when she died in 1967 when in fact she was a mere 80 years of age when she died in 1965!

It is clear, therefore, that many of these claims regarding his grandmother are greatly exaggerated.  For example, he has stated on numerous occasions that he was effectively reared by his grandmother from a young age on her small farm in Camas.  However, from school attendance records we learn that Michael Hartnett attended the Courteney Boys National School in Newcastle West on a regular basis from September 1949 when he entered First Class (having attended the Convent School, now Scoil Iosaef, for Junior and Senior Infants) until June 1955 when he completed Sixth Class.  His attendance during those years was exemplary, rarely missing a day, this, despite his claims in the documentary, ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, that he was ‘a sickly child, and still am’.  He then transferred to St. Ita’s Boys Secondary School, then housed in the Carnegie Library in the town to pursue Secondary Education.  His sojourns to Camas would, therefore, only have been at weekends and during school holidays as it was at least a four-mile walk.  However, it is not contested that the small farm in Camas and Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, played a very important role in providing sustenance and much-needed nourishment for the young Harnett family in Maiden Street during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Michael Hartnett’s first cousin, Joe Dore, has clear recollection that ‘the poet’ was a frequent visitor to Camas, ‘except when there was hay to be saved’.  John Cussen, local historian and friend of the poet says that,

‘Michael Hartnett and I were in the same class in the Courteney School for several years until 1954 when I went to Boarding School (in Glenstal).  We were good friends.  He was certainly always living in town at that time.  I do not recall him ever talking about his grandmother or his sojourns in Camas with her.  We were too busy swopping comics which was all the rage at the time!’

Patrick Kavanagh says in his poem, ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stobling’,    ‘Once upon a time / I had a myth that was a lie but it served’.   Hartnett, too, had his myths and why not?  In the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ he states:

I have told ye no big lies and most of the truth –

not hidden the hardships of the days of our youth

when we wore lumber jackets and had voucher boots

  and were raggy and snot-nosed and needy.

We can ascribe various motivations for these claims by the poet but the most credible is that he wanted to portray his grandmother as the quintessential  ‘nineteenth-century woman’ who never came to terms with the political, social and cultural changes which were brewing in Ireland in the late nineteenth century.  He saw her as a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland.  In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so his poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”, which he described as ‘an apology’ to his grandmother, can also be read as a post-colonial lament.  Therefore, it would have been more convenient if she had been born in 1870 rather than 1885.   Hartnett always considered Bridget Halpin to be a woman ‘out of her time’.  She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13).  To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,

she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.

He has placed Bridget Halpin on a pedestal for his own good reasons.  He saw in her a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseogs of the countryside.  This is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn.  There is an underlying paganism here which is absent from Kavanagh’s work, whose poetry, in general, is suffused with orthodox 1950’s Catholic belief, dogma and theology.  For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, limited knowledge of the laws of physics, and therefore, as he points out in ‘Mrs Halpin and the Thunder’,

Her fear was not the simple fear of one

who does not know the source of thunder:

these were the ancient Irish gods

she had deserted for the sake of Christ.

However, Hartnett’s powers of observation and intuition were honed in Camas on Bridget Halpin’s small farm during his frequent visits.   His poem, “A Small Farm”, has great significance for the poet and it is the first poem in his Collected Poems, edited by Peter Fallon and published by The Gallery Press in 2001.  He tells us that he learnt much on that small farm during those lean years in the forties and early fifties,

All the perversions of the soul

I learnt on a small farm,

how to do the neighbours harm

by magic, how to hate.

The struggle to make a success and eke out a living was a constant struggle and burden.  The begrudgery of neighbours, the ‘bitterness over boggy land’, the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’ (“A Small Farm”).  The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but interestingly Hartnett does not name this place, it is an Everyplace.  The poem is simply titled, “A Small Farm” so there is no Inniskeen, Drummeril, or Black Shanco here but the harshness and brutality of existence, ‘the cracked calendars / of their lives’ (ibid) in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh.  Yet, it is here that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and often to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ them and begins to notice the birds and the weeds and the grasses,

I was abandoned to their tragedies

and began to count the birds,

to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold,

and to avoid among my nameless weeds

the civil war of that household.

Later in, “For My Grandmother, Bridget Halpin”, he again alludes to the wildness, the paganism, the piseógs that surrounded him during his childhood in Camas.  His grandmother’s worldview is almost feral.  She looks to the landscape and the birds for information about the weather or impending events,

A bird’s hover,

seabird, blackbird, or bird of prey,

was rain, or death, or lost cattle.

This poorly educated woman reads the landscape and the skies as one would read a book,

The day’s warning, like red plovers

so etched and small the clouded sky,

was book to you, and true bible.

We know that Michael was in Morocco when Bridget Halpin died in 1965 in St. Ita’s Hospital in Newcastle West where she was being cared for.  In this poem there is also a reference to his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin) who helped rear him and who was eventually to inherit the small farm from his mother, Bridget when she died,

You died in utter loneliness,

your acres left to the childless.

Hartnett is taking a great risk here, that of alienating those closest to him with his disparaging comments on his relations.    We know that this trait of outspokenness was to become a feature of his art; his poetry was often scathing and rebellious.  However, in this regard, surely the biggest risk he takes is in the first lines of “Death of an Irishwoman”, when he describes his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, as ‘ignorant’ and ‘pagan’.  This is nearly as risky and risqué as Heaney’s bold and brave comparing of his wife to a skunk in the poem of that name!  Only a favourite, a truly loved one could get away with such braggadocio!  The poem’s ending, however, with its exquisite cascade of metaphors surely makes amends for his earlier gaffe.

Therefore, the townland of Camas and Bridget Halpin’s small farm holds a very special place and influence on Michael Hartnett’s psyche.  His first published work appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955 while he was still in Sixth Class in the Courteney Boys School.  He was thirteen.  Entitled “Camas Road”, it describes in particular detail an evening rural vista of the townland of Camas, a place which would feature on numerous other occasions in his poetry, becoming central to his development as a poet.  It is similar to Heaney’s “Sunlight” poems representing an idyllic childhood upbringing.  Its two eight-line stanzas of alternating rhyme and regular metre contain a litany of natural images, at times idiosyncratically rendered; the ‘timid hare sits in the ditch’, ‘the soft lush hay that grows in fields’.  It is a peculiar mix of a poem, seemingly authentic words and images from the poet’s experience placed together with those gleaned from the literary prop-box crafted by Manley Hopkins or Wordsworth, testament, no doubt,  to the young poet’s  voracious appetite for reading and possibly due to the influence of his teacher, Frank Finucane.   It is doubly imitative, drawing upon the romantic tradition of nature poetry, as well as the more local genre, poems written by local poets, people, ‘like Ahern and Barry before me’poems written exclusively for local consumption.  Thirteen-year-old Hartnett depicts an idyllic setting,

A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge,

A cottage thatched with golden straw,

The harshness of later poems is not evident and the poem serves as a record of his childhood in Camas surrounded by nature and its abundant riches.  However, at poem’s end there is a growing awareness that this idyllic phase of his life is coming to an end and he declares rather poignantly,

The sun goes down on Camas Road.

The townland of Camas is also central to an episode which the poet recounts for us in his seminal poem, “A Farewell to English”.  This encounter hovers somewhere between reality and dream, aisling (the Irish word for a vision) or epiphany.  The incident takes place at Doody’s Cross as the poet walks out one summer’s Sunday evening from Newcastle West to the cottage in Camas.  He is on his way to meet up with his uncle, Dinny Halpin.  He sits down ‘on a gentle bench of grass’ to rest his weary feet after his exertions when he sees approaching him three spectral figures from the Bardic Gaelic past – Andrias Mac Craith, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, and Daíbhí Ó Bruadair.  These ‘old men’ walked on ‘the summer road’ with

Sugán belts and long black coats

with big ashplants and half-sacks

of rags and bacon on their backs.

They pose as a rather pathetic group, ‘hungry, snot-nosed, half-drunk’ and they give him a withering glance before they take their separate ways to Croom, Meentogues and Cahirmoyle, the locations of their patronage, ‘a thousand years of history / in their pockets’.  Here Hartnett is situating himself as their direct descendent and the inheritor of their craft and the enormity of this epiphany occurs at Doody’s Cross in Camas: the enormity of the task that lies ahead also terrifies and haunts Hartnett.

As another part of the myth that he had created, Hartnett always laid great emphasis on the fact that he had been born in Croom.  He was immensely proud of this fact.  In an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll for Poetry Ireland he stated:

I am the only ‘recognised’ living poet who was born in Croom, County Limerick, which was the seat of one of the last courts of poetry in Munster: Sean Ó Tuama and Andrias MacCraith.  When I was quite young, I became very conscious of these poets and, so, read them very closely indeed (Dennis O’Driscoll Interview for Poetry Ireland, p, 143).

Andrias Mac Craith (c. 1709 – c. 1794), in particular, was an important influence on Hartnett.   MacCraith had, for a time, very close associations with the town of Croom in County Limerick (although, it is believed, he had been born in Fanstown near Kilmallock).  As already mentioned, Hartnett had long dined out on the fortuitous coincidence that he too had strong associations with Croom having been born there.   However, he neglects to inform us that most of the babies born in Limerick in 1941 were also born in St. Nessan’s Maternity Hospital in Croom!  He would have been in Croom for less than a week before he returned to Lower Maiden Street to the accommodation which his family rented from the eponymous Legsa Murphy who also owned a bakery near Forde’s Corner in Upper Maiden Street.  However, in the mid to late 1700’s Andrias MacCraith, who was also known as An Mangaire Sugach or The Merry Pedlar (he was not a pedlar, but a roving schoolmaster), and his fellow poet and innkeeper, Sean Ó Tuama an Ghrinn (Sean O’Tuama The Merrymaker), had transformed Croom into a centre for poetry and the seat of one of the last ‘courts’ of Gaelic poetry.  The town became somewhat notorious and became known widely as Cromadh an tSughachais, roughly translated as Croom of the Jubilations – (today it would obviously be known as Croom of the Craic)!  Hartnett would have loved this vibrant, anarchic milieu and this is why Mac Craith had such an influence over him.  Hartnett saw himself as a natural descendent of these poets and the motivation behind his ‘rebel act’ in 1974 was largely an effort to  revive the interest in Irish, and poetry in Irish, which had  earlier been generated by these poets who were known collectively as the Maigue Poets, in honour of the River Maigue which runs through Croom.  His lovely poem, “A Visit to Croom, 1745” is his effort to recreate the tragic changes that were imminent, he tells us he had walked fourteen miles ‘in straw-roped overcoat’,

…… to hear a  Gaelic court

Talk broken English of an English king.

As with almost everything that surrounds Hartnett, therefore, our task is to try to discern fact from fiction, myth from reality.  We know that Hartnett was a frequent visitor to Camas until he was twelve or thirteen and that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, considered him to be her favourite grandson.  We also know that there were fragile remnants of a dying language and culture and customs still evident in the area.   His later momentous disavowal of his earlier work in English and his abandonment of his standing as an emerging poet in 1974 is not hugely surprising when we consider the influences brought to bear on him during those extremely important formative years in Camas.  Surely those beautiful, descriptive, soothing Irish adjectives repeated as a mantra in “A Farewell to English”, ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’, which are used to describe the raven haired buxom barmaid in Moore’s Bar or Windle’s Bar in Carrickerry, could also be used to describe his grandmother, Bridget Halpin herself?  The encounter depicted in the second section of the poem, “A Farewell to English”, and referred to earlier, can also be read as an example of Hartnett realising what he suggests artists do in his beautiful poem, “Struts”.  He is,

……. climbing upwards into time

And climbing backwards into tradition.

 So, Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris’s but it helped produce one of Ireland’s leading poets of any century.  The influences absorbed in this rural setting, his powers of observation, his knowledge of wildlife and flowers, his ecocentric bias, are impressive and all-pervasive in his poetry.  Without prejudice, it also has to be said that he demonstrates a deeper knowledge of all local flora and fauna than could be reasonably expected of a ‘townie’!  In his own words, he has told us ‘no big lies’ and, though questionable, there was, we believe, ‘method in his madness’.  When we examine closely his impressive body of work we notice that apart from Camas very few other rural places are mentioned or named in his poetry.  He later left and went to Dublin, London, Madrid, Morocco but when he had work to finish he came back to rural West Limerick and to another beautiful neighbouring townland, Glendarragh,  to embark on the work for which he will, if there is any justice, be best remembered.

Works Cited

‘A  Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999

Hartnett’s Wikipage

Hartnett, Michael. Why Write in Irish? in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.133

Hartnett, Michael.  Collected Poems, Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2001.

Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta. Translated by Michael Hartnett, Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1986.

O’Driscoll, Dennis. Michael Hartnett Interview in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.143

Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012.

Sources:  My gratitude is extended to Joe Dore and John Cussen for their invaluable assistance in compiling this piece of research.

[1] Michael Hartnett’s family name was Harnett, but for some reason, he was registered in error as Hartnett on his birth certificate. In later life, he declined to change this as it was closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide.  

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Bridget Halpin’s derelict cottage as it was in early 2017. The cottage is presently undergoing a major extension. (Photo Credit: Dermot Lynch)

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An Analysis of the Poetry of John Montague

The poet John Montague at work.

The poet John Montague at work.

 

THIS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN THE POETRY OF JOHN MONTAGUE. IT IS HOPED THAT IT WILL HELP THOSE STUDYING FOR LEAVING CERT HIGHER LEVEL (POSSIBLY A LEVEL ALSO).  

YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS.  IN OTHER WORDS MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.

THE FOLLOWING SELECTION OF POEMS IS SUGGESTED BECAUSE THEY DEAL WITH THE MAJOR THEMES AND STYLISTIC DEVICES  WHICH RECUR IN MONTAGUE’S POETRY:

·        The Locket (TL)

·        The Cage (TC)

·        Like Dolmens Round my Childhood the Old People (LDRMC)

·        The Wild Dog Rose (TWDR)

·        The Same Gesture (TSG)

·        Windharp (WH)

·        A Welcoming Party (AWP)

MONTAGUE SAID HIMSELF THAT WRITING POETRY WAS ‘LIKE THE DROPPING OF A ROSE PETAL INTO THE GRAND CANYON, A FUTILE ACT’.  MAYBE, HOWEVER, YOUR VIEW OF LIFE HAS BEEN CHANGED BY READING HIS POETRY AND MAYBE THE GRAND CANYON IS SWEETER FOR THAT ROSE PETAL AND MAYBE THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE BECAUSE OF JOHN MONTAGUE’S POETRY!

YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL.

 

Relevant Background

  • John Montague was born in Brooklyn, New York early in 1929.  He  died in the Clinique Parc Impérial in his beloved Nice early on December 10th, 2016. He was 87.
  • He was son of James Montague, an Ulster Catholic, from County Tyrone, who had immigrated to America in 1925 after involvement in republican activities.
  • His mother was Molly Carney, but she played little part in his life after his birth. Yet she marred John’s life by her absence from it.
  • James Montague had the typical exile’s optimistic hope of benefiting from the American Dream.
  • But when his wife, Molly, arrived three years later with their two first sons, James could provide nothing better than the Brooklyn slums for their family home.
  • Regarding his background, John Montague’s grandfather was a Justice of the Peace, schoolmaster, farmer, postmaster and director of several firms.
  • John had a typical Brooklyn kid’s early childhood, playing with coins on tram- lines and seeing early Mickey Mouse movies.
  • Because of the economic effects of the Depression era John Montague was shipped back in 1933 at the age of four to his family home at Garvaghey, in County Tyrone.
  • John Montague’s mother rejected him after a painful birth. This rejection and marriage problems were contributory causes to the decision to send John to be fostered from the age of four by two aging unmarried aunts.
  • Later, when his mother ended her marriage and returned to Ulster, she continued to ignore John, a fact which deeply hurt him and affected both his speech (he developed a stammer) and his ability to socialise with women.
  • However, the switch from city kid to country-village boy in Ulster benefited John and proved to be a ‘healing’ as he called it in one of his poems.
  • With the help of his imagination, he adopted to life on a farm that doubled as the local rural post-office. Because of this he got to know the local characters and gossips very well. We see this in ‘Like Dolmens’ and ‘The Wild Dog Rose’.
  • He was first taught in Garvaghey National School.
  • For secondary education John went to an austere boarding school run by strict priests in Armagh. There, against his will, John learned about the long tradition of Irish poetry from an influential teacher.
  • While studying for his degree in Dublin after World War Two, John found Dublin to be a very old fashioned place, with the atmosphere over-controlled, especially by priests.
  • Afterwards he went to work and complete his education in American Universities. He honed his poetic skills while in America.
  • John Montague then got married and lived for a time in France where he continued to write poetry and to write short stories. There for a while he became a friend of the renowned Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett.
  • He worked as Paris correspondent for The Irish Times for three years. He spent a total of twelve years living in France.
  • After journalism, he began a long career as a university lecturer and poet. He has lectured at universities in France, Ireland, Canada, and the United States.
  • He is the author of numerous collections of his own poems and editor of anthologies of works of other poets.
  • He has received many awards, including the Irish-American Cultural Institute’s Award for Literature, the American Ireland Fund Literary Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
  • In 1987, Montague was awarded an honorary doctorate by the State University of New York. The State Governor Mario M. Cuomo praised Montague for his outstanding literary achievements and his contributions to the people of New York.
  • In 1998, he was named the first Irish Professor of Poetry. This is a position he held for three years, equally divided among The Queen’s University in Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, and University College Dublin.
  • He now divides his time between West Cork and France.
  • John Montague has a major international reputation as an Irish poet, the first major Northern Irish Catholic poet.
  • He is a poet who describes private feelings as well as public themes.
  • Much of his poetry centres on his personal family history and the culture and history of Catholics in Northern Ireland, including the twenty-five year long period of the Troubles.
  • For example, his greatest poem ‘The Rough Field’ is set on the farm where he was reared from the age of four and was influenced by the people he grew up among.
  • The Civil Rights Movement in 1960’s Northern Ireland also influenced John Montague. His did a public reading of his poem ‘New Siege’ outside Armagh Jail in 1970 to support a jailed civil rights protester, the nationalist Bernadette Devlin.
  • As an adult he spent some time trying to recapture the American experience, a search reflected in some of his poems.
  • Separation from his father all his life affected him emotionally as we read in his poem ‘The Cage’.
  • The pain of rejection by his mother was even more traumatic for his personal development as we read in the poem ‘The Locket’.
  • John Montague is renowned internationally as one of the major Irish poets of the twentieth century.
Garbh Fhaiche = The Rough Field = Garvahey

Garbh Fhaiche = The Rough Field = Garvahey

MAJOR THEMES IN MONTAGUE’S POETRY

Childhood:  Like many poets, Montague is fascinated with the subject of childhood. ‘A Welcoming Party’ (AWP) describes the relative safety  and comfort of a childhood in Ireland during World War Two.  While the rest of Europe was plunged into destruction, Ireland remained safely on the ‘periphery of incident’.  While young boys were fighting and dying all over Europe the young poet was free to ‘belt a football through the air’.  Yet the ‘drama of unevent’ that constituted the war years in Ireland is briefly shattered for the poet when he encounters the newsreel of the death camps and discovers the grim reality of ‘total war’.

 What might be described as a darker aspect of childhood is explored in ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood’ (LDRMC).   There is a sense in this poem that the Ireland of Montague’s youth was a dark and haunted place, a land where ancient beliefs and superstitions still survived.  We get a sense that during his childhood many people still believed in myths and magic, in ghosts, curses and supernatural demons; ‘Ancient Ireland, indeed!  I was reared by her bedside, / The rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head/ Fomorian fierceness of family and local feud.’  For an imaginative child growing up in this society it was easy to believe that magic still existed, that ancient monsters such as the Fomorians still roamed the land, in the dark countryside just beyond the reach of the farmhouse lights.

 A similar theme is evident in ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ (TWDR) where the poet describes his childhood terror of an old woman that lived in his locality.  This poor and seemingly quite ugly old woman terrified the young poet with her ‘hooked nose’, her ragged clothes and the pack of dogs that always surrounded her.  To him she seemed a kind of witch, a terrifying supernatural figure who ‘haunted my childhood’.  Yet while Montague’s poetry described this ‘Ancient Ireland’ it also records it’s passing away.  As the country became more modern and Europeanised the old legends and superstitions no longer exerted the same power.  As he grows up he can see the old legends and superstitions for what they were.  This is particularly evident in TWDR where he realises that the ‘cailleach’ that so terrified him in his youth is only human after all and he ends up chatting to her by the roadside, reminiscing and gossiping ‘in ease’ about the people of the parish.

 Violence:  Montague’s work is haunted by the threat and possibility of violence.  This is particularly evident in ‘A Welcoming Party’  where the young speaker is left greatly troubled by his encounter with images of the holocaust. He pulls no punches in his depiction of the horrors of war.  His description of the holocaust victims here has been described as disgusting, bizarre and disturbing.  Their mouths are described as ‘burnt gloves’, their bodies are depicted as nests full of insect eggs and their hands are depicted as begging bowls.

 ‘The Wild Dog Rose’, meanwhile, presents violence in an Irish context.  The depiction of the attempted rape of the old woman is almost as shocking as that of the holocaust victims.  The drunken labourer invades the old woman’s home whirling his boots in an attempt to ‘crush the skulls’ of her dogs.  There is something truly horrific about the image of him wrestling her to the ground and ‘rummaging’ in her ‘tasteless trunk’ of a body.  Yet this violent scene serves an important symbolic function, representing the violence and misery that had been visited upon Ireland over the centuries.  The violation of the old woman echoes many ancient Irish songs and poems in which a woman, representing the land of Ireland,  is violated by some ruthless villain who represents the foreign oppressor.

The hidden side of human personalities:  John Montague contemplates the vulnerable underside of people who may appear harsh on the surface, ‘Maggie Owens… all I could find was her lonely need to deride’ [LDRMC]; ‘Mary Moore… a by-word for fierceness… dreamed of gypsy love-rites’ [LDRMC].   Montague also senses how a human hurt can deform a life, ‘the cailleach, that terrible figure who haunted my childhood but no longer harsh, a human being merely, hurt by event’ [TWDR].   He reveals the real personality behind the public smiles of his father, ‘My father… extending his smile to all sides of the good (all white) neighbourhood… the least happy man I have known’ [TC].   Montague is aware of the duality of our gestures in different contexts. An everyday movement of the hand in public, in traffic, that is mechanical in effect, can be deeply intimate in effect in the privacy of lovemaking, ‘changing gears with the same gesture as eased your snowbound heart and flesh’ [TSG].

John Montague is able to forgive his mother for rejecting him because he sees her pain and senses the different personality she had before her life turned harsh, ‘my double blunder… poverty… yarning of your wild young days… the belle of your small town… landed up mournful and chill’ [TL].

The impact of family on his life:  As we have discovered, Montague’s family situation was far from ideal.  Like thousands of Irish people his parents were forced to emigrate to America where they struggled to survive in the face of extremely difficult circumstances.  The consequences of this struggle are movingly portrayed in ‘The Cage’ (TC).   The battle with poverty and the effort to make a home in a new society have clearly scarred the poet’s father who is described as ‘the least happy man I have known’.  His deep unhappiness is evident in his alcoholism.  Each night he is compelled to drink himself into oblivion, as if only this will numb the pain of his existence, ‘the only element he felt at home in any longer: brute oblivion’.

Yet the poet’s mother, it seems, suffered even more.  He claims that the brutal circumstances of her life – emigration, poverty, a loveless marriage – damaged her in some fundamental way, leaving her ‘wound’ in a ‘cocoon of pain’.  She is unable to bond with her son and eventually sends him back to Ireland – causing great psychological damage to both herself and her son, so much so that in ‘The Locket’ (TL), he refers to her as a ‘fertile source of guilt and pain’.

The harshness of life:  John Montague portrays the suffering of lonesome, impoverished locals from the hills around Garvaghey (Garbh Fhaiche = rough field = Garvahey). ‘When he died his cottage was robbed… driving cattle from a miry stable… forsaken by both creeds… Fomorian fierceness of family and local feud’ [LDRMC].   He depicted the suffering of his father, a prisoner of poverty in New York, ‘ my father, the least happy man I have known…the lost years… released from his grille… drank neat whiskey until… brute oblivion’ [TC].  Montague spells out the extent of his mother’s physical pain and anguish, ‘ source of guilt and pain… the harsh logic of a forlorn woman’ [TL].   He portrays the life-long loneliness and the brutal rape of a seventy-year-old spinster, ‘the cailleach… hurt by event… loneliness, the monotonous voice in the skull that never stops… he rummages while she battles for life bony fingers reaching desperately to push against his bull neck…’ [TWDR].   Montague also portrays the horror of concentration camps, ‘From nests of bodies like hatching eggs flickered insectlike hands and legs’ [AWP].

A sense of place:  Montague observes and draws the landscape of his childhood, ‘the cottage, circled by trees, weathered to admonitory shapes of desolation…where the dog rose shines in the hedge’ [TWDR]; ‘a bend in the road which still shelters primroses’ [TC]; ‘ a crumbling gatehouse. Famous as Pisa for its leaning gable’ [LDRMC];  ‘From main road to lane to broken path’ [LDRMC].   Montague pinpoints the essence of nature’s music as created by the wind in the Irish landscape, ‘seeping out of low bushes and grass, heatherbells and fern, wrinkling bog pools, scraping tree branches…’ [WH]. Montague evokes the horror of Auschwitz, ‘a welcoming party of almost shades… an ululation, terrible, shy’ [AWP].  He also neatly depicts the irrelevance of Ireland geo-politically in the 1960’s, ‘to be always at the periphery of incident’.  He mentions what would strike an Irish visitor to New York, ‘listening to a subway shudder the earth’ [TC]. Montague sums up the essence of a Brooklyn neighbourhood, ‘(all-white) neighbourhood belled by St Theresa’s church’ [TC].   Montague evokes the intimacy of the marriage bedroom, ‘a secret room of golden light… healing light… gesture … eased your snowbound heart and flesh’ (TSG.).

Isolation and separation:  Montague’s parents suffered separation and social isolation. ‘My father… brute oblivion’ [TC].  Like his father, his mother suffered from self-imposed oblivion, ‘the harsh logic of a forlorn woman resigned to being alone’ [TL].  Montague with great sympathy captures the reason for an odd old lady’s personality, ‘the only true madness is loneliness, the monotonous voice in the skull that never stops because never heard’ [TWDR]. Her isolation means that she seeks no redress from the authorities for rape. She suffers with a stoicism born of a folk version of religion, ‘she tells me a story so terrible I try to push it away… I remember the Holy Mother of God and all she suffered’ [TWDR].   Montague captures the isolation of his scattered elderly rural neighbours, ‘Jamie McCrystal sang to himself… Maggie Owens… even in her bedroom a she-goat cried… Billy Eagleson… forsaken by both creeds… ‘ [LDRMC].

Human love: Montague is quite famous within the literary world as a poet of love.  Intense descriptions of erotic love, in particular, recur in many of his poems.  We see this in ‘The Same Gesture’ (TSG) where the couple’s lovemaking is unashamedly celebrated: ‘It is what we always were- / most nakedly are’.  Lovemaking is presented as something spiritual and holy.  The couples’ hands moving on each other’s skin, we’re told, is like something from a religious ceremony: ‘the shifting of hands is a rite’.  Love and sexual intimacy are depicted as having a powerful healing quality: ‘Such intimacy of hand / and mind is achieved / under its healing light’.  Oneness is also celebrated, the notion that two lovers can somehow forget themselves and blend into one: ‘We barely know our / selves there.’

TSG, too, is intensely aware of the fragility of love.  Emotional and sexual intimacy can be a spiritual and ‘healing’ thing.  Yet a relationship can also become bitter and sour leading to hatred and even violence.  The poem suggests that in this modern age love and intimacy are becoming more and more difficult to maintain.  In this busy world where time and space are such a precious commodity it can be easy to lose sight of what matters.  The pressures of ‘work, phone, drive through late traffic’ must not cause us to neglect our relationships.  Love, the poem implies, requires private space, a ‘secret room’ if it is to flourish, if its ‘healing light’ is to shine.  In the modern world, however, such space is increasingly difficult to come by.

Nature:  As with other poets like Kavanagh and Frost, Montague’s work is regularly inspired by the natural world.  This is very evident in ‘Windharp’ (WH), in particular where he lovingly describes the Irish landscape with its ‘heather bells and fern, / wrinkling bog pools’.  In this phrase we see Montague’s powers of description at their best: we can easily imagine the ripples on a bog pool resembling wrinkles on a piece of cloth.

A love of the Irish landscape is also evident in LDRMC with its celebration of the folk who live among the mountains and glens of rural County Tyrone.  TWDR, too, displays the poet’s love of nature with its meticulous description of the tender wild flowers with their ‘crumbling yellow cup / and pale bleeding lips’.  Yet the harsher aspects of nature are also lovingly rendered, such as the old woman’s rough field with its ‘rank thistles’ and ‘leathery bracken’.  He observes nature’s beauty in eloquent language, ‘Gulping the mountain air with painful breath’ [LDRMC] ‘weathered to admonitory shapes of desolation by the mountain winds’ [TWDR]

Montague personifies the effects of climate on the Irish landscape as ‘ a hand ceaselessly combing and stroking the landscape’ [WH]. He is also  aware that not all that is beautiful is strong, ‘dog rose… at the tip of a slender, tangled, arching branch… weak flower, offering its crumbling yellow cup and pale bleeding lips fading to white’ [TWDR].

It is unsurprising, therefore, given Montague’s obvious love of the Irish landscape that he describes it as something ‘you never get away from’.  Even when you leave the country, he claims, the sound of the wind through the Irish countryside, that ‘restless whispering’, will still somehow echo in your ears.

MAIN ELEMENTS OF MONTAGUE’S STYLE

Form John Montague is a lyric poet. He uses various stanza forms in the poems selected for the Leaving Certificate. He favours a poem of between four and seven stanzas with either six or seven lines per stanza. However he deviates from this at times. He doesn’t tend to follow a definite rhyming pattern. Many of his poems have rhyme, though he is not strict about this. You are as likely to see half-rhyme as rhyme. .

 Speaker In most of Montague’s poems the speaker is the poet himself. Most of his material comes from his lived experience and direct observations. He is a poet of the self, a romantic poet in that sense. He uses poetry to arrive at perceptions about his parents, partners, memories and the impact on him of national and international events.

 Tone Montague’s various tones range from pain to empathy, admiration and wonder. The word which applies to much of his poetry is compassionate. His tone is often one of intelligent detachment. At times he is capable of sarcasm. His tone can sometimes sound haunted, guilty even for the actions of others. He is capable of rueful and frustrated irony as illustrated in the final line of ‘A Welcoming Party’.

Language Montague’s language is personal and anecdotal. He addresses the reader in conversational English. The need for rhythm and a regular beat may lead to the omission of obvious words or the changing of word order or phrase order. His most striking feature is his use of adjectives, sometimes in a group of three. It is worth commenting on his adjectives and how they convey meaning, express tone and achieve mood. ‘Windharp’ is a very eloquent poem in which to investigate the effect of adjectives. The fourth stanza of ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ is a powerful example of Montague’s talent for selecting adjectives.

Montague’s choice of verb is often apt and evocative. The use of the verb ‘rummages’ in its context in ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ is both horrifying and touching in its graphic violence. A clear example of Montague’s ability to use a pithy phrase is found in ‘A Welcoming Party’ when he refers to Ireland’s remoteness from what matters in the world at large: ‘to be always at the periphery of incident’. He defines the ‘Irish dimension’ of his childhood as ‘drama of unevent’. Montague matches language to meaning.

Imagery As partly a narrative type of poet, many of Montague’s images are descriptions of actual memories, colourful pictures from his lived experience or the experience of others like Minnie Kearney narrated first to him and then to the reader as a third person account. A particular graphic example of the latter is found in ‘The Wild Dog Rose’. The poem contains an uncensored example of violence, a detail of which is the following: ‘the thin mongrels rushing out, but yelping as he whirls with his farm boots to crush their skulls’. The effect of the word ‘yelping’ on the reader is strong here. Consider the locket around his mother’s neck as a graphic image from his life.

Montague also chooses striking comparison images to convey his intelligent perceptions. The image of a cage for his father’s work booth is an example of Montague’s clear but intelligent metaphors. Likewise his simile of the dolmen is profound and carries many resonances. The detailed image of the dog rose from the third section of ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ is an illustration of Montague’s descriptive powers and of his ability to use an actual image as a symbol of human fragility.

Verbal music For Montague’s lyrical music you will find various sound repetitions, rhymes and half-rhymes, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, consonance and sibilance in all his poems. For assonance listen to the ‘u’ sounds in ‘A Welcome Party’ especially in lines seven to ten. This enhances the effect of a group wail or lamentation as suggested by the word ‘ululation’.

A useful example of onomatopoeia is found in line two of ‘Windharp’, where the words imitate the breezes in the bushes and grass: ‘ the restless whispering’. This is a case of assonance ‘e’ and sibilance combining to create a musical effect that reinforces meaning.

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SAMPLE ANSWER:  Give your personal response to the poetry of John Montague.

 I am a big fan of John Montague because I find his poetry very emotional and moving.  Much of this emotion comes from the depiction in his poems of human relationships.  In poem after poem he explores the difficulties that can exist in human relationships.  Several of his poems reveal the tensions and difficulties that can dog even the most successful of romances.  Family pressures, too, are movingly explored in these poems.  Yet what I found most attractive about Montague’s work is its emphasis on the fact that these difficulties can be overcome or reconciled.

 Montague is quite famous within the literary world as a poet of love.  Intense descriptions of erotic love, in particular, recur in many of his poems.  We see this in ‘The Same Gesture’ (TSG) where the couple’s lovemaking is unashamedly celebrated: ‘It is what we always were- / most nakedly are’.  Lovemaking is presented as something spiritual and holy.  The couples’ hands moving on each other’s skin, we’re told, is like something from a religious ceremony: ‘the shifting of hands is a rite’.  Love and sexual intimacy are depicted as having a powerful healing quality: ‘Such intimacy of hand / and mind is achieved / under its healing light’.  Oneness is also celebrated, the notion that two lovers can somehow forget themselves and blend into one: ‘We barely know our / selves there.’

In ‘The Same Gesture’, too, the poet is intensely aware of the fragility of love.  Emotional and sexual intimacy can be a spiritual and ‘healing’ thing.  Yet a relationship can also become bitter and sour leading to hatred and even violence.  The poem suggests that in this modern age love and intimacy are becoming more and more difficult to maintain.  In this busy world where time and space are such a precious commodity it can be easy to lose sight of what matters.  The pressures of ‘work, phone, drive through late traffic’ must not cause us to neglect our relationships.  Love, the poem implies, requires private space, a ‘secret room’ if it is to flourish, if its ‘healing light’ is to shine.  In the modern world, however, such space is increasingly difficult to come by.

One of his most emotional poems is ‘The Locket’, where he describes his difficult relationship with his mother.  He tells us that his mother has been a ‘fertile source of guilt and pain’ for him throughout his life.  According to the poet, his mother regarded his birth as a ‘double blunder’.  The first part of this ‘double blunder’ stemmed from the fact that the poet was born a boy when she really wanted a girl.  Secondly, Montague was turned the wrong way in the womb, making the process of his birth extremely difficult for her.  According to the poem, this ‘double blunder’ caused the mother to reject her son.  She was never really affectionate to him and ‘sent him away’ when he was four years old.  He was sent back to Ireland where he lived with his aunts.

It seems that even in later years the mother could not bear to be around her child.  When she returned to Ireland she did not reclaim her son and instead went to live in a different village a few miles away from where he lived.  As a young man Montague would ‘cycle down’ to visit her, but eventually she told him to stop coming: ‘I start to get fond of you, John, / and then you are up and gone.’  I found this aspect of the poem extremely moving and felt very sorry for the young Montague.  I felt he had done nothing to deserve this harsh treatment from his mother.  After all, it was not his fault he was born ‘the wrong sex’ and the ‘wrong way round’.  I found the mother’s behaviour somewhat cruel and felt that she had unfairly created feelings of ‘guilt and pain’ for her son.

‘The Cage’ also explores the poet’s feelings of ‘guilt and pain’ and in this case the negative emotions stem from his difficult relationship with his father.  He describes his father as the ‘least happy man I have known’.  This unhappy man spent his days working in the dark and noise of the New York subway: ‘listening to a subway shudder the earth’.  He was an alcoholic who would drink himself into ‘brute oblivion’.  Only when obviously drunk was he in anyway happy.  According to the poem this was the ‘only element / he felt at home in any longer.’

One of the most moving aspects of Montague’s poetry is his depiction of his reconciliation with his parents.  When his mother dies he discovers that she loved him after all, and that for years she had worn a locket that contained his picture: ‘an oval locket / with an old picture in it, / of a child in Brooklyn’.  Similarly, the poet eventually comes to terms with his troubled father and they walk ‘together / across fields of Garvaghey / to see hawthorn on the Summer / hedges’.  I found it very tragic, however, that both reconciliations came too late.  For the poet’s mother was unable to express her love for him while she was alive and it is only after her death that he learns of it.  The poet’s reconciliation with his father also comes too late.  For no sooner has the father returned to Ireland and spent some time with his son than the son himself must depart: ‘when wary Odysseus returns / Telemachus should leave’.  The poet seems to be forever haunted by this unhappy man and his failure to ever really connect with him and still sees his father’s ‘bald head’ when he descends into subway stations.

Another poem that showcases reconciliation is ‘The Wild Dog Rose’.  As a child, the poet was terrified by the old woman who lived near his house, imagining her to be a terrifying witch with a ‘great hooked nose’, her ‘mottled claws’ and her eyes that were ‘ staring blue’ and ‘sunken’.  I really like the way Montague captures the feelings of mystery and terror the boy experiences at the sight of this weird old lady who ‘haunted my childhood’.  As in ‘The Cage’ and ‘The Locket’ there is a focus on reconciliation in this poem when Montague comes back as a fully grown young man to visit the ‘cailleach’.  Now his feelings of ‘awe’ and ‘terror’ have been replaced by ‘friendliness’.  The poet and the old woman stand by the roadside talking about old times: ‘we talk in ease at last, / like old friends’.  Gradually he is reconciled with this old woman that scared him so much: ‘memories have wrought reconciliation between us’.

To sum up, then, the main reason I like Montague’s poetry so much is the convincing way in which it reveals human emotions.  The poems very movingly portray negative emotions such as pain, guilt, fear and sorrow.  Yet they also show how these negative emotions can be healed and overcome through a process of reconciliation.  I find these aspects of his work very moving indeed.

 

 john-montague

 JOHN MONTAGUE – SOME GRACE NOTES…..

“The only thing unchanging in life is change.”

  • John Montague is a poet of emotion and of place. Memory, love, Ireland and elsewhere play a significant part in his work.  The seven poems highlighted here tell of his fascination with his sense of his past and native place (LDRMC); his father (TC); his mother (TL); an old woman in his native place who tells him of an attempted rape (TWDR); Ireland’s landscape (WH); the complexities of love (TSG); and his awakening boyhood consciousness (AWP).  According to Montague ‘the only thing unchanging in life is change’ (and a very eminent English teacher constantly reminded his class that ‘the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies’!) and his poetry is a chronicle of that change in his own life.
  • The poems we have studied chart Montague’s boyhood, schooldays, early love, and relationships.  Unhappiness and hurt feature in many of his poems.  He speaks of himself as ‘An unwanted child, a primal hurt’ and admits that ‘my work is riddled with human pain’.  However, he also writes tenderly and sensitively about landscape and love.  He sees himself as the first poet of Ulster Catholic background since the Gaelic poets of the eighteenth century.
  • Critic, Peter Sirr, describes Montague as ‘Public and private, internationalist and intensely focused on Ireland’.  He says that Montague’s poetry results from ‘a complex and troubled journey’ and his poetry is ‘haunted, edgy and constantly in search of framing structures to make sense of its different worlds.’  That complex and troubled journey began in Brooklyn and moved through Ireland, North and South, later France and America, before returning to Cork and West Cork.  Family and personal history and Ireland’s history became subject matter for the poetry and his poetic techniques were influenced not only by Irish but by French and American poetry.
  • In an 1988 interview with Dennis O’Driscoll, Montague compared the making of poems to fishing, ‘trying to get the fish out on to the bank’ and he likened the making of poems to the dropping of a rose petal into the Grand Canyon.  Many of his poems are intensely personal.  He shares with us his understanding of intimate, private things and he also writes of life’s harshness and disappointments.
  • Frost will always be associated with Vermont and Kavanagh will always be associated with Inniskeen and indeed, Montague will likewise always be associated with Garvahey (from the Irish ‘garbh fhaiche’ meaning ‘rough field’).  It was his adopted place and he has made this place his own.  ‘Among the welter of the world’s voices,’ he says, ‘in the streets, on the airwaves, in the press, you find your own voice, yet this does not isolate you, but restores you in your people.  Across the world the unit of the parish is being broken down by global forces, and from Inniskeen to Garvahey, from Bellaghey to Ballydehob, to the Great Plains of America, an older lifestyle, based on the seasons, is being destroyed.  But it can still be held in the heart and in the head.’
  • In his Inaugural Lecture of the Irish Chair of Poetry on 14 May 1998, John Montague said: ‘So you wander round the world to discover the self you were born with’ and in that same lecture he agrees with Frank O’Connor who ‘argues that the strength of the storyteller often comes from the pressure behind him of a community which has not achieved definition, a submerged population’.
  • In Peter Sirr’s words: ‘The need to unify the different levels of experience, the recognition that the personal and the political are necessarily meshed, are part of what makes Montague valuable’ and Montague identifies Ireland’s ‘three great losses in the nineteenth century’ as defining: ‘First the loss of people.  Ireland had 8 million people in 1840.  A third of those died or left.  Second, the loss of the Irish language.  Those who remained had to learn to speak English and it happened in ten years.  Third, the loss of the music.  Those who played music at the crossroads were driven out to America and there was fifty years of silence.’

Though his poetry contains striking and memorable images of scars and wounds, ‘I think the ultimate function of the poet is to praise’, says Montague.