Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture 2021

Ambassador Dan Mulhall, addressing the audience during his Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture at Éigse Michael Hartnett. Photo credit: Dermot Lynch

Rebel Acts: Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague and Michael Hartnett

The Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture, 2 October 2021

I have always been interested in the fact that Ireland’s era of supreme literary achievement – the time of Yeats and Joyce – coincided with its age of political transformation in the opening decades of the 20th century. This has given me an interest in what I call ‘history poems’, poetry that addresses issues of a political or societal nature.

Was this really a coincidence, or was the flowering of Irish literature in the first third of the 20th century somehow bound up with Ireland’s torrid escape from external rule in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Were Irish literature and early 20th century Irish history two sides of the same coin?

During my student days in Cork, I was friendly with a number of up-and-coming poets who emerged there under the guidance of John Montague, who taught English at UCC. I refer to Tom McCarthy, Sean Dunne, Theo Dorgan and Pat Crotty. Although I could never write a line of verse myself as I do not have the gift or the courage for self-revelation of the kind that good poetry requires, I had an interest in poetry. It was through that interest that I met Michael Hartnett briefly when he came to UCC to do a reading there in the mid-1970s.

That was about the time when ‘A Farewell to English’ was published and I was intrigued by his caustic evocation of the ‘paradise of files and paper clips’. That seemed especially pertinent to me as I was about to join the Irish civil service. At the time, I was writing an MA thesis which explored the borderlands between literature and history.  I made use of ‘A Farewell to English’ in that study in order to point out that our writers continued to have an awkward interface with Irish society and politics in the 1970s. Some of the lines from Hartnett’s poem have stayed in my mind throughout the intervening decades.

Hartnett’s poem reflected the disenchantment I had encountered elsewhere in Ireland’s literary canon.  It seemed as if our writers acted as a kind of informal opposition to the conventions, pieties if you will, of independent Ireland.

I have long detected similarities between ‘A Farewell to English’ and  Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’ and John Montague’s ‘The Rough Field’, three public poems that address key themes from experience as an independent country. In this talk, I want to reflect on those three poems all of which exhibit a crusading tone.  Between them they offer a kind of potted history of 20th century Ireland, retold by three acute, articulate observers.

In ‘The Great Hunger’, Patrick Kavanagh excoriates the failings of rural Ireland.  John Montague’s ‘Rough Field’ explores the sectarian conflicts and tensions that abounded in his home place, Garvaghey in County Tyrone. In Hartnett’s case, disappointment with the Ireland he knew runs through his poem. Between them, the three poets raise dissenting voices, disaffected from aspects of the Ireland they knew. They tell us something about 20th century Ireland.  If journalism is the first draft of history as has been claimed, then literature is perhaps its second draft.  Literary evidence also lives on in the public imagination in ways that other parts of our documentary archive does not.

The three poems do not, of course, tell us everything about 20th century Ireland, just as ‘Easter 1916’ does not give a full picture of the 1916 Rising, but that poem does capture something of the essences of the Rising. For their part, Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett give us snatches of commentary on 20th century Irish life.  What do they tell us?

The Great Hunger:

Reading it again in recent weeks, it is hard not to be deeply impressed with  ‘The Great Hunger’(1942). It’s one hell of an achievement, even if the world it depicts has an antiquarian feel in the Ireland of Google, Starbuck’s and Amazon etc.

In a 1949 interview with The Bell, Kavanagh bragged that he was “the only man who has written in our time about rural Ireland from the inside” and that was fair comment. What I think he meant was that Yeats and other writers of the literary revival had spied rural Ireland from the outside, idealizing it in the process. Kavanagh had written about it at close quarters from his ungainly perch at Inniskeen in County Monaghan. Kavanagh certainly didn’t follow Yeats’s exhortation to ’sing the peasantry’ or to embrace the dream of ‘the noble and the beggarman’.

What we get in ‘The Great Hunger’ is a furiously gritty immersion in what the poet called

the apocalypse of clay

In every corner of this land.

This is what one critic has called an ‘anti-pastoral’ poem. The poet Brendan Kennelly has described ‘The Great Hunger’ as ‘a necessary realistic outburst from an essentially transcendental imagination.’ The tone is this poem is very different from Kavanagh’s better-known short poems, where his attitude to rural Ireland is more wistful.  Here it is fierce. He pulls no punches in his evocation of the sexual frustrations of ‘poor Paddy Maguire’ and his fellow potato gatherers who are like ‘mechanised scarecrows’ ‘broken-backed over the Book of Death’.

Maguire is a man whose spirit:

Is a wet sack flapping about the knees of time.

He is not the ‘wise and simple man’ with the ‘sun freckled face’ as in Yeats’s dream of the ideal Irish countryman in his poem, ‘The Fisherman’. This is reality as Kavanagh saw it, a man bound to his fields,

Lost in a passion that never needs a wife.

Now that he is in his sixties and senses that life has passed him by, Maguire is:

not so sure if his mother was right

When she praised a man who made a field his bride.

Kavanagh’s insider’s account of rural Ireland is a stern antidote to notions of a rural idyll. There are those who see Kavanagh’s poem as a counterpoint to de Valera’s famous 1943 speech dreaming of rural Ireland ‘joyous with the sounds of laughter, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age.’  There is nothing serene about the anti-hero of ‘The Great Hunger’ who seems achingly aware of his dismal fate,

In Kavanagh’s version of rural Ireland, ‘life is more lousy than savage’ and those who live there are in ‘the grip of irregular fields’ from which ‘No man escapes.’ For the poet acting as sociologist, at the root of Paddy Maguire’s (and rural Ireland’s) frustrated unhappiness is a socially-enforced suppression of sexuality. In Kavanagh’s view, this is something that Maguire and the people around him bring on themselves.

Later in his life, Patrick Kavanagh sought to disown ‘The Great Hunger’ and its hectoring tone. He insisted that ‘A poet merely states the position and does not care whether his words change anything or not.’ I am not saying that ‘The Great Hunger’ was a harbinger of change, but it was part of a critique of the ‘dreary Eden’ carried out in the 1940s and 1950s through the pages of The Bell edited by Seán O’Faoláin, to which Kavanagh was a contributor.

As a public servant, I tend to trace the roots of modern Ireland to the publication of Economic Development in 1958, which, driven by a desire to stem the flight from rural Ireland that had reached epidemic proportions in mid-1950s, resolved to open up our economy in what turned out to be a game-change for Ireland. ‘The Great Hunger’ helps us to understand the social roots of rural Ireland’s depopulation.

The Rough Field:

The Rough Field was published in 1972, the year I began studying literature at UCC with John Montague as one of my lecturers, but the poems it incorporates were written during the preceding ten years. It has something in common with Kavanagh’s long poem (Montague was an admirer of Kavanagh’s poetry and an advocate for it) in that it explores Ireland’s rural world, in Montague’s case Garvaghey in County Tyrone. It is interesting that Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett all hail from rural or small-town Ireland, quite different from the urban, and ultimately cosmopolitan backgrounds of Yeats and Joyce, modulated in Yeats’s case by his engagement with Sligo and Coole Park in Galway.

‘The Rough Field’ is a poem of exile and return. Montague, the boy from Garvaghey, having spent years in Dublin, Berkeley and Paris, re-engages with his home place and ‘the unhappiness of its historical destiny’. Like Kavanagh, he doesn’t go all pastoral on us. As he puts it,

No Wordsworthian dream enchants me here ..

But merging low hills and gravel streams,

Oozy blackness of bog-banks, pale upland grass; ..

Harsh landscape that hunts me,

Well and stone, in the bleak moors of dream.

Like ‘The Great Hunger’, ‘The Rough Field’ can be lyrical as remembrance of boyhood wells up:

Those were my first mornings

Fresh as Eden, with dew on the face,

Like first kiss, the damp air:

On dismantled flagstones,

From ash-smoored embers

Hands now strive to rekindle

That once leaping fire.

But the prevailing tone is stark, grim and, as in Kavanagh and indeed Hartnett, there is a side swipe at Yeats, this time his insistence that ‘Ancient Ireland knew it all.’:

Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside,

Then rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head,

Formorian fierceness of family and local feud.

Perhaps the key line in this collection is when the poet, having brought to light the elemental unpleasantness of sectarian animosities in rural Tyrone, frees himself from the ‘dolmens round my childhood’ that had trespassed on his dreams:

Until once, in a standing circle of stones,

I felt their shadows pass

Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.

Here we have the poet seeking to put his past, and that of his home place, behind him, but can any society ever do that? Creating a kind of ‘permanence’ of historical memory in the public mind, hopefully not a dark one, may be one of the outputs from our Decade of Centenaries, putting our history in a settled place where it can be analysed and debated, but not fought over

Like Michael Hartnett in ‘A Farewell to English’, Montague muses on the ‘shards of a lost tradition’ and reflects on his father’s experience as an exile, one that was all too common to Irish people in the 20th century. He was:

the least happy

man I have known. His face

retained the pallor

of those who work underground:

the lost years in Brooklyn

listening to a subway

shudder the earth.

In the part of ‘The Rough Field’ known as ‘Patriotic Suite’, the poet turns his attention to independent Ireland and its discontents – ‘the gloomy images of a provincial  catholicism’. Once at UCC in the mid-1970s, I heard Montague deliver an excoriating putdown of the deficiencies of the Ireland of that time and, drawing on Swift to fillet the ‘yahoos’ he believed were in the ascendant. In this poem he writes that:

All revolutions are interior

The displacement of spirit

By the arrival of fact,

Ceaseless as cloud across sky,

Sudden as sun.

Cheekily, he asks:

Does fate at last relent

With a trade expansion of 5 per cent?

His question is does prosperity help us deal with our demons, a puzzle that is still with us. I celebrate our material advancement as a people since the 1970s, but I accept that things of value can get lost in the process and that economic advancement does not guarantee wellbeing, which is more difficult to measure.

Then Montague brings us into the 1960s, where at ‘the Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar:

There were two sounds, the breaking

Of glass, and the background pulse

Of music. Young girls roamed

The streets with eager faces,

Pushing for men. Bottles in

Hand, they rowed out for a song.

Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone ,

A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain.

Montague’s final take on rural Ireland is ambivalent. He acknowledges that:

Only a sentimentalist would wish

to see such degradation again.


Yet something mourns.

It is the loss

of a world where action had been wrung

through painstaking years to ritual.

What, in Montague’s view has gone is:

Our finally lost dream of man at home

in a rural setting!

I recognise the issue of rural Ireland’s viability and equilibrium as a continuing priority for us in this century. What, I wonder, will our experience of the pandemic do to the urban/rural balance of our country?

A Farewell to English

 This is by far the shortest of three works I discuss in this talk. It starts with a flourish.

Her eyes were coins of porter and her West

Limerick voice talked velvet in the house:

her hair black as the glossy fireplace

wearing with grace her Sunday-night-dance best.

She cut the froth from glasses with a knife

and hammered golden whiskies on the bar.

Now I know this is not a literary term, but that’s what I call ‘great stuff’. It’s a strong opening pitch. It reminds me of Kavanagh’s ‘Raglan Road’. But the poet’s unease emerges early on as he sinks his hands into tradition, ‘sifting centuries for words’, but the words he reaches for with ‘excitement’ and ‘emotion’ are Irish words.

It is clear to me that the poet’s turning away from the English language, ‘the gravel of Anglo-Saxon’ is a reflection of a more generalized disenchantment with the realities of what he calls ‘the clergy cluttered south’.  He conjures up an image of Ireland’s leaders queueing up at Dublin Castle in 1922

to make our Gaelic

or our Irish dream come true.

But this ends up with us choosing

to learn the noble art

of writing forms in triplicate.

As it happens, when I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978, it was common to make 4 or 5 carbon copies of a letter, while ‘cut and paste’ meant using scissors and gum to cut up old documents and rearrange them!

In Hartnett’s vision, modern Ireland is the offspring of a ‘brimming Irish sow’ and ‘an English boar’.  He concludes that

We knew we had been robbed

but we were not sure that we lost

the right to have a language

or the right to be the boss.

The image here is of unrealised national ambition and of materialism eclipsing identity.

In another echo of Yeats (‘Irish poets learn your trade’), he insists that

Poets with progress

make no peace or pact.

The act of poetry

is a rebel act.

Justifying his decision to abandon English, he takes the view that

Gaelic is our final sign that

we are human, therefore not a herd.

For Hartnett, therefore, the Irish language was a precious antidote to the stifling conditions he saw around him.

He concludes with a resounding broadside:

I have made my choice

and leave with little weeping:

I have come with meagre voice

to court the language of my people.

Hartnett’s poem confronts one of the unredeemed aspirations of 20th century Ireland, the effort to revive the Irish language. The Gaelic League helped radicalize a generation of Irish people at the turn of the century and became a driver of revolutionary activity. Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Eamon de Valera entered the world of Irish nationalism through the door of the Gaelic League.   But the language revival stalled with independence. It flourished in the pronouncements of the State but not in the practice of the people. For Hartnett, I think it was the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality that spurred him to make the radical step of abandoning English, the language of the head – ‘the perfect language to sell pigs in’ – in favour of Irish, the language of the heart. The language question continues to be an important issue in discussions about Irish identity, in answering the ‘who are we’ question.


When Michael Hartnett described poetry as ‘a rebel act’, he was not referring to the kind of rebellion that was the subject of Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’.  What his words suggest is that a poet’s default posture is dissatisfaction and disenchantment. 20th century Ireland has had a fraught relationship with its writers, Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Sean O’Faolain, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien and many others who strained against the nets of conformity.

What can we derive about 20th-century Ireland from these three long poems?  Three things strike me:

The first is the aura of disappointment surrounding the actual fruits of independence. For Kavanagh, this revolved around the stunted condition of rural Ireland. For Montague, it was the failure to resolve sectarian tensions in Ulster and the dullness of life in Ireland compared with the expansiveness he had encountered elsewhere. And for Hartnett, it was the bureaucratization of Irish life and the abandonment of a vital part of our cultural patrimony.

The second is that rural Ireland is the laboratory in which the poets test what they saw as our national failings. The problems of rural Ireland and attempts to remedy them was the mainstay of the nationalist project throughout the 19th century. If independence was the solution to Ireland’s ills, then that ought to have been in evidence in rural society. In the three poems explored in this talk, all with rural settings, Monaghan, Tyrone and West Limerick, disappointment and disenchantment is the prevailing mood.

My third takeaway is that there are are shards of light visible in each poem. In Kavanagh whatever sense of hope the poem contains comes from its celebration of the natural world despite all its harshness. Take for example his image of ‘October playing a symphony on a slack wire’. In one passage, Kavanagh reflects on the fact that

..sometimes when sun comes through a gap

These men know God the Father in a tree:’

In Montague’s poem, it’s the social loosening of the 1960s epitomised by the Fleadh in Mullingar that gives him hope that ‘puritan Ireland’ is on its last legs. For  Hartnett, it is the protective glow of Ireland’s language and traditions.  Hartnett once referred to Irish as both ‘the soul’s music’ and ‘the bad talk you hear in the pub’. It is ‘a ribald language/anti-Irish’, by which I am sure he meant that its reality confounds traditional images of Irishness.

Given that the default position for these writers is critical, how will Irish literature fare in the more self-satisfied Ireland we now live in? What will the target be of the history poems of our 21st century? Will the present pandemic inspire meditations in verse on the subject of our national condition?

Not all Irish poetry revolves around the ‘bugbear Mr Yeats’, as Michael Hartnett described his eminent predecessor. Far from being an island of bad verse, today’s Ireland continues to produce a good fistful of poetic talent that can shine the light of imagination on our affairs.

Finally, to come back to literature and history, I want to mention a book I will publish in January entitled, Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey. I wrote it to mark the centenary of the publication of Joyce’s great novel and to record my own journey with, and through, Ulysses this past forty years. As a historian, I also see Ulysses as an invaluable portrait of an Ireland on the cusp of dramatic political change, an enduring monument in words to our country as it was a century and more ago.  We are lucky to have so many wordsmiths, past and present, delving into our national life for, as Yeats once wrote, ‘words alone are certain good’.

Daniel Mulhall


About the Author…..


Ambassador Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s current Ambassador to the United States delivered this year’s Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture during the Éigse Michael Hartnett Literary and Arts Festival which took place from September 30th to October 2nd in Newcastle West, County Limerick.

The Ambassador was following in a long line of illustrious speakers who had previously delivered this prestigious lecture, including Donal Ryan, Theo Dorgan, Nuala O’Faolain, Paul Durban, Fintan O’Toole, Declan Kiberd and President Michael D. Higgins. 

Daniel Mulhall was born and brought up in Waterford. He pursued his graduate and post-graduate studies at University College Cork where he specialised in modern Irish history and literature. He took up duty as Ireland’s 18th Ambassador to the United States in August 2017.

He joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978 and had his early diplomatic assignments in New Delhi, Vienna (OSCE), Brussels (European Union) and Edinburgh where he was Ireland’s first Consul General, 1998-2001. He served as Ireland’s Ambassador to Malaysia (2001-05), where he was also accredited to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. From 2009 to 2013, he was Ireland’s Ambassador to Germany. Before arriving in Washington, he served as Ireland’s Ambassador in London (2013-17).

In 2017, he was made a Freeman of the City of London in recognition of his work as Ambassador. In December 2017, he was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Liverpool. In 2019, he was honoured with the Freedom of the City and County of Waterford. In November 2019, Ambassador Mulhall was named Honorary President of the Yeats Society in Ireland.

During his diplomatic career, Ambassador Mulhall has also held a number of positions at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including as Director-General for European Affairs, 2005- 2009. He also served as a member of the Secretariat of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation (1994- 95). From 1995-98, he was the Department’s Press Counsellor and in that capacity was part of the Irish Government’s delegation at the time of the Good Friday Agreement 1998.

Ambassador Mulhall brings his deep interest in Irish history and literature to the work of diplomatic service in the U.S., describing the strong, historic ties and kinship between the countries as the basis for a vibrant economic and cultural relationship. He has lectured widely on the works of W.B. Yeats and James Joyce. His new book, Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey, is due for publication in January 2022. He is also the author of A New Day Dawning: A Portrait of Ireland in 1900 (Cork, 1999) and co-editor of The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment (Dublin, 2016).

A keen advocate of public diplomacy, Ambassador Mulhall makes regular use of social media in order to provide insights into the work of the Embassy, to promote all things Irish and to engage with Irish people and those of Irish descent around the world. He provides daily updates on his Twitter account @DanMulhall and posts regular blogs on the Embassy’s website.


An Analysis of the Poetry of John Montague (1929 – 2016)

The poet John Montague at work.


• 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 (W)
• A Welcoming Party (AWP)



John Montague
Garbh Fhaiche = The Rough Field = Garvahey

Relevant Background

• John Montague was born in Brooklyn, New York early in 1929.
• 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 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 a poem not on the course.
• 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 gossip 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. Three course poems e.g. ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood’ come from ‘The Rough Field’.
• The Civil Rights Movement in 1960s 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 protestor, 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.

  • Montague died at the age of 87 in Nice on 10 December 2016 after complications from a recent surgery. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth Wassell, daughters Oonagh and Sibyl and grandchildren Eve and Theo.



Childhood:  Like many poets on our course, Montague is fascinated with the subject of childhood. AWP describes the relative safety and comfort of a childhood in Ireland during the war. 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 LDRMC. There is a sense in this poem that the Irelands 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 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 the possibility of violence. This is particularly evident in ‘A Welcoming Party’ (AWP) 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’ (TWDR), 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 gipsy 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…’ [W] 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 1960s. ‘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’ (W), 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 wildflowers 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’ [W]. 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.

‘Portrait of John Montague’ / 2015-16 / 127x117cm / oil on canvas by Colin Davidson


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 particularly 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.

For a more detailed illustration of verbal music examine the precise examples provided in the notes on three individual poems by John Montague in the Leaving Cert English Ordinary Section on Skoool.ie .

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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 any way 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.




“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.