John Montague, poet and former Ireland Chair of Poetry, has died on 10th December in Nice, at the age of 87.
Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Tyrone, Montague was a true figurehead of Irish poetry. Orlaith McBride, director of Arts Council Ireland, described his passing as “a true loss to Irish literature”. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland paid tribute, stating that Montague’s poetry reached “a level of historical eloquence and tribal understanding rarely seen in 20th-century poetry in English”.
During his time as Ireland Chair of Poetry, John Montague was involved in the history of the Verbal Arts Centre. On the 5th December 1999, Montague lay one of the cornerstones of the centre, at the refurbished First Derry School, a listed building on Derry’s city walls, in Bishop Street. In 1995 the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society noted that further use of the former school was a difficult problem, there being no concrete ideas for its reuse. The Verbal Arts Centre purchased the decaying building and restored it through obtaining grant aid at a total cost of £1.7m.
The cornerstone itself was taken from the Dalriada rift at Drumceatt, where, in AD 575, Aedh, the High King of Ireland called a synod in order to ratify the relationship between the Irish territory of Dalriada and the Scottish Kingdom of Dalriada, and to discuss the power and influence of the bards of Ireland. St Colmcille was invited to return to his homeland of Ireland from his monastery in Iona to speak on behalf of the poets and storyteller. It was only fitting therefore, that the influential Montague be invited to lay the stone in place.
Lagan Online editor, Colin Dardis: “As a Tyrone poet whose grandfather was born in New York, and who also had a speech impediment when younger, I always felt a kind of affinity with John Montague. I had the great pleasure of meeting him briefly in Armagh a few years ago, where I held him in a type of timid reverence. He was a role model and figurehead for Irish poets, and many will find solace and great joy in revisting his works.”
Lesley Martin, poet: “The first and only time I saw John Montague read was a number of years ago in the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast. Ever since, his Collected Poems has sat close at hand, well thumbed, the book falling open at those poems that I have been unable to stop reading. His words are ones that I am continually drawn back to, particularly when looking out over the fields at my family home near The Moy. The Tyrone countryside that Montague wrote about is the same that I know and love, and sharing that has always made me feel a certain affinity towards his work. The way he wrote about love always struck me; he wrote as someone who had a lot of experience with the subject, but he had not become disillusioned by it. Love was still the driving force in his life. The loss of him will be felt hard by the poetry community as a man of immense wisdom, powerful words, and infinite love for his fellow man.”
“But who does not fear
the bristling boar of death
the bustling black
hog of his own death,
stained tush, with
all that huge weight
of deadly muscle?”
– from ‘Wintery Dawn’