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John Montague: 1929-2016

If you’re ever driving north to Derry or Inishowen you may find, in spite of the fact that the road is a lot better than it used to be and the journey consequently a good deal shorter, that you’d like to stop somewhere for a cup of coffee or to use the toilet.

If, as I’m assuming, you’re no longer so scaredycat as to drive the long way round through Sligo and Bundoran, avoiding “the Six Counties” entirely, a place you might consider – it’s a good deal better than most ‑ is just a little bit after the border, through Emyvale and Aughnacloy (no need to stop) and on through the big roundabout at Ballygawley where you could turn off for Enniskillen, Dungannon or Belfast. But take the turn for Derry, or Londonderry it may be if the sign hasn’t been interfered with, and just up at the brow of a long hill you’ll find a filling station and pub-cum-restaurant called Kelly’s.

Here you can get a very decent cup of coffee, even a slice of good apple tart, with a dollop of fresh cream if your doctor allows it. And stretch your legs. The weather is likely to be fresh. You’re in mid-Tyrone, with the Sperrins off to the east and northeast: Carrickmore, Pomeroy, further north Creggan, Greencastle and Gortin, where Irish was still spoken until at least the middle of the twentieth century and maybe later. And to the west the Clogher valley, Augher, Clogher, Fivemiletown (Six Mile Cross and Seven Mile Round as a celebrated rhyme has it) and on into Fermanagh. Look around you. You may well have the impression of seeing nothing. Certainly, apart from Kelly’s fine establishment, it’s not a metropolis. You’re in Garvaghy, the home place of poet John Montague, who died today. And small and all as it is and was, it was once a sufficient world to a young child, as Montague showed us in his poem “Paths”.

Paths

We had two gardens.

A real flower garden
overhanging the road
(our miniature Babylon).
Paths which I helped
to lay with Aunt Winifred,
riprapped with pebbles;
shards of painted delph;
an old potato boiler;
a blackened metal pot,
now bright with petals.

Hedges of laurel, palm.
A hovering scent of boxwood.
Crouched in the flowering
lilac, I could oversee
the main road, old Lynch
march to the wellspring
with his bucket, whistling,
his carrotty sons herding
in and out their milch cows:
a growing whine of cars.

Then, the vegetable garden
behind, rows of broad beans
plumping their cushions,
the furled freshness of
tight little lettuce heads,
slim green pea pods above
early flowering potatoes,
gross clumps of carrots,
parsnips, a frailty of parsley,
a cool fragrance of mint.

Sealed off by sweetpea
clambering up its wired fence,
the tarred goats’ shack
which stank in summer,
in its fallow, stone-heaped corner.

With, on the grassy margin,
a well-wired chicken run,
cheeping balls of fluff
brought one by one into the sun
from their metallic mother
—the oil-fed incubator—
always in danger from
the marauding cat, or
the stealthy, hungry vixen:
I, their small guardian.

Two gardens, the front
for beauty, the back
for use. Sleepless now,
I wander through both
and it is summer again,
the long summers of youth
as I trace small paths
in a trance of growth:
flowers pluck at my coat
as I bend down to help,
or speak to my aunt,
whose calloused hands
caressing the plants
are tender as a girl’s.

Lara Marlowe’s piece http://bit.ly/2goHVwH in today’s Irish Times quotes Montague referring to a certain sibling rivalry with fellow Ulster poet Seamus Heaney. But almost every Irish poet of a certain generation inescapably had that feeling to one degree or another. Writing in the Dublin Review of Books in 2010 http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-big-splatter , John Montague recalled a pleasant evening spent in the company of a number of other poets gathered to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Gallery Press. The poets await their turn (in the greenroom of the Abbey Theatre), “swerving and gliding, without colliding”. The mood is slightly tense, but benign,

... a far cry from the poetic flytings of my youth, when begrudgery ruled: Kavanagh thundering in his Envoy diary; Clarke’s sly barbs. The MC, or fear a tigh, of the evening, is Seamus Heaney, and his seemingly effortless courtesy reminds me of the parish halls of our shared Ulster childhood, with Tommy Ligget, my Protestant neighbour, spinning the wheel for all comers. Or else a great diplomat calming a room. It is not Yeats chastising a mob, but a more avuncular presence in a more amiable ambiance: people assembling to listen to some of their favourite poets.

John Montague 1929-2015. Rest in peace.

10/12/2016