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Wednesday 21 August 2019

A poet's turbulent life well lived

The great John Montague's sense of abandonment as a child imbued his work and his life, writes Ciara Dwyer

John Montague pictured in 2009. Three times married, he refused to let his early hardships blight his adult years. Photo: Gerry Mooney
John Montague pictured in 2009. Three times married, he refused to let his early hardships blight his adult years. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Ciara Dwyer

John Montague, the poet and short story writer who died in a Nice hospital yesterday aged 87, once said that his work was "riddled with human pain".

This was inevitable considering his early childhood. Hunger and hardship drove him on, toiling steadily at his craft. He and Seamus Heaney would often exchange drafts of poems, testing out words on each other. He was born in Brooklyn in 1929, as the banks began tumbling. "I suppose my infant ears could hear the sound of people committing suicide from Wall Street," he told me back in 2009.

His father, a patriotic Northern Catholic, left Tyrone after 1922. The plan to work in his brother's speakeasy was dashed after Prohibition closed it down. John's uncle hit the bottle and died. His father, subsequently jobless, sent his children to Ireland.

At four, John was put on a boat bound for Ireland. Separated from his siblings, he was given to his father's sisters, two spinster aunts in Tyrone. "I was extraordinarily lucky because they were two lonely women in a biggish house," he recalled. "I was smothered in love immediately."

This was typical of John's upbeat attitude. To survive, he tried to blank out the memory of saying goodbye to his parents in the US. His mother had been sick since his birth and it was years before his parents returned to Ireland. He told me that he had "good memories of his mother". One day, she came to visit his maiden aunts, a mysterious woman in a black dress. She watched him and, seeing that he was happy in his new environment, left him there. Later, he would cycle up the lane to see her. Their fireside chats came to a halt when she asked him not to come again; she explained that she was starting to get fond of him. In his moving poem The Locket, he writes of this and of her "cocoon of pain". After she died he learnt that she always wore an oval locket with an old picture of a child in Brooklyn.

As a child, Montague developed a stammer which stayed with him. He attributed it to his hurt about his lost mother. But he did not let his early hardships blight his life. There was great humour to him. A tall, rangy man with a jaunty walk and a glint in his green eyes, he conducted our interview in his stockinged feet.

He loved women and attributed that to those early motherless years. He wrote sensuously about women, one story in particular about a woman swimming in Seapoint and the curves of her body. His eyes danced as he told me about "girls in their absence of clothes" in the 1960s. He married three times. His first wife, Frenchwoman Madeleine Mottuel, went out to work so he could write. When that relationship waned, he went on to marry another Frenchwoman, Evelyn Robson, with whom he had two daughters. In 1992, he fell in love with US novelist Elizabeth Wassell and they married. In Landing, he referred to her as "my late but final anchoring". Although decades younger than Montague, the age gap made not a jot of difference to Wassell. Anyone who witnessed them together saw that they blazed with passion and joy.

"It would make little sense to live a life if you didn't understand what you had done," he said. "Then you try to make a shape out of it, in a poem or a story. It's a kind of a judgment, you sit on yourself - the things that I've done that I can't stand over and can stand over - accepting it all."

'I will miss a wonderful friend and a magical poet'

President Michael D Higgins led tributes to John Montague, who he described as "one of our finest poets".

"His death represents another great loss to Irish letters, a further break with a rich body of work that was the gift of poets and dramatists, to Ulster, Ireland and the world.

All of the themes of the last century are engaged in John's work - separation, exile, memory, conflict, the making and teaching of poems in academic settings far and wide, and the challenge of their delivery, generously undertaken in myriad settings," President Higgins said.

John Montague's friend Garech de Brun said: "I am deeply sad. I will miss his sense of humour, his good humour and even his bad humour. He was a wonderful friend and a magical poet."

Arts Minister Heather Humphreys said his work had inspired many and would continue to do so for future generations. "I would like to express my sympathy to his wife Elizabeth and daughters Sibyl and Oonagh."

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