Happy Birthday John Montague

Saturday 28 February 2009 12:40

John Montague is 80 today. In University College Cork, in the seventies, a thriving community of writers centred around John Montague and Professor Sean Lucy. Although, for reasons that I have now forgotten but which were, no doubt, sufficient unto the day, I remained outside his circle (a circle that included Thomas McCarthy, Maurice Riordan and Seán Dunne, for example). Nevertheless I found him personally kind and courteous.

More importantly we were all aware of the presence of a poet of international standing in what was a provincial university in a provincial country on the edge of Europe, and when we organised readings – often in hole-in-the-corner cafés or the back-rooms of pubs – he and Sean Lucy would turn up, conferring a kind of value on the proceedings. Here, after all, was a poet published by Dolmen (then the best publishing house in the country), who made appearances in England and the USA, who translated from the French, attending readings by unpublished writers and taking them seriously.

Writers In Residence are now a commonplace on every campus, but not in 1970s Ireland. John, in fact, was nothing so exotic. He was a lecturer in the English Department. I suspect that Sean Lucy was less interested in his academic qualifications than in his literary ones, and he may have been resented by many of his colleagues. However, I think he performed a much higher function, always supposing that the academy is serious in its professed admiration for the art it studies (please ignore the irony here).

In large measure due to him, a lot of fine writing happened in Cork at that time and many fine writers found encouragement and validation in his presence.

We read his own work with fascination and admiration (and, of course, because we were students, we parodied it). The Rough Field had just appeared as a single book when I went to UCC. I remember him saying once that it could be fifty years before its structure would be fully understood. It still stands as a remarkable engagement with the politics of Northern Ireland, indeed of Ireland as a whole, an artistic enterprise that took courage. Most of his contemporaries studiously avoided political engagement. That it was difficult did not make him popular either. Rightly, he never apologised for the complexity of his work.  Then A Slow Dance appeared, followed by the beautiful The Great Cloak. During my time at UCC he was working on his long poem The Dead Kingdom. This was the period when he first received national and international recognition. It would be impossible to underestimate his influence on the young writers who went to UCC at that time.

So, in gratitude and admiration, Happy birthday John.