“I was going upstream, against the current. I was coming from the North before the North had broken”. — Northern Irish poet John Montague

It’s his birthday today.

John Montague has great sentimental value to me. He was one of my father’s favorite poets. I remember being at home – some years ago, it had to be pre-covid (sob) – and Mum pulled out dad’s copy of Montague’s collected poems, and the book fell open – naturally – to the poem listed below. Because that was the page my dad turned to so often, the book “remembered.” I almost gasped. Mum has a copy of it taped up over her sink.

Montague, who died in 2016, was one of the most important poets from Northern Ireland in the 20th century. Montague was born in 1929 and hit his stride in middle-age, which happened to coincide with the explosion of violence in Northern Ireland in the late 60s and 70s. Montague was of Ulster Catholic stock (fascinatingly, though, he was born in Brooklyn: in 1933 his family sent the children back to Ireland to live with relatives). By the time the 60s/70s rolled around, Montague was published (stories and poems), but the political upheaval put him in the middle of seismic events. It was no time to be an Ivory Tower poet. In 1970, when Northern Ireland seethed with violence, he read one of his poems outside the Armagh Jail. He went to Yale, attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, lived in France for a bit, but mostly he lived in America. But he returned to Ireland in the 60s/70s – he came home in her moment of excruciating trial. Many Irish in exile returned to Ireland during those years – even though it might make more “sense” to stay away so, you know, you don’t get blown up. But I get it. If you live somewhere, you don’t want to be away from it when horrible things happen.

Montague taught at the University of Cork, and it was there that his influence as a poet started to spread … and spread … and spread. An entire generation was inspired by him, not only as a teacher but as a writer. His work is heartbreaking. Like I said, I can’t really speak of him in any way approaching distance, because of how much my father loved him.

His childhood was filled with a series of cultural/familial RUPTURES, and this informed his poetry. He spent his early years playing happily on the streets of Brooklyn. He was then sent away by his parents to live with his maiden aunts in Ireland, who remained in the dilapidated ancestral home in County Tyrone. So his first world suddenly vanished, and overnight he was a farm boy in Ulster. All of this gave him a perspective on childhood and memories that make him unique. The world can be lost at any moment. There is no continuity. Continuity is a lie. Familiarity does not exist, or at least it does not last. His childhood in Ireland was spent around elderly people. He lived in an ancient home falling into disrepair, being cared for by elderly aunts, and all of this made him see the past in a tragic and very specifically Irish way. What has been lost? Can it be regained?

This was my father’s favorite poem. He knew it by heart. It’s the poem the book fell open to naturally.

Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, The Old People

Like dolmens round my childhood, the old people.

Jamie MacCrystal sang to himself,
A broken song without tune, without words;
He tipped me a penny every pension day,
Fed kindly crusts to winter birds.
When he died his cottage was robbed,
Mattress and money box torn and searched.
Only the corpse they didn’t disturb.

Maggie Owens was surrounded by animals,
A mongrel bitch and shivering pups,
Even in her bedroom a she-goat cried.
She was a well of gossip defiled,
Fanged chronicler of a whole countryside:
Reputed a witch, all I could find
Was her lonely need to deride.

The Nialls lived along a mountain lane
Where heather bells bloomed, clumps of foxglove.
All were blind, with Blind Pension and Wireless,
Dead eyes serpent-flicked as one entered
To shelter from a downpour of mountain rain.
Crickets chirped under the rocking hearthstone
Until the muddy sun shone out again.

Mary Moore lived in a crumbling gatehouse,
Famous as Pisa for its leaning gable.
Bag-apron and boots, she tramped the fields
Driving lean cattle from a miry stable.
A by-word for fierceness, she fell asleep
Over love stories, Red Star and Red Circle,
Dreamed of gypsy love rites, by firelight sealed.

Wild Billy Eagleson married a Catholic servant girl
When all his Loyal family passed on:
We danced round him shouting “To Hell with King Billy,”
And dodged from the arc of his flailing blackthorn.
Forsaken by both creeds, he showed little concern
Until the Orange drums banged past in the summer
And bowler and sash aggressively shone.

Curate and doctor trudged to attend them,
Through knee-deep snow, through summer heat,
From main road to lane to broken path,
Gulping the mountain air with painful breath.
Sometimes they were found by neighbours,
Silent keepers of a smokeless hearth,
Suddenly cast in the mould of death.

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