The Healing Art of John Montague

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  • Canadian Journal of Irish StudiesCanadian Association of Irish Studies

    The Healing Art of John MontagueAuthor(s): Brian JohnSource: The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jun., 1986), pp. 35-52Published by: Canadian Journal of Irish StudiesStable URL: .Accessed: 12/06/2014 21:44

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  • The Healing Art of John Montague 35

    The Healing Art of John Montague

    by Brian John

    In his most recent volume, The Dead Kingdom (1984), John Montague returns to a theme previously

    explored in the The Rough Field twelve years before - the tragic continuity in the poet's province

    of Ulster of the past with the present, binding national and family history and involving time, place,

    language and poetry. News of his mother's death provokes journeys across the Irish landscape, into

    the past, especially the poet's childhood and adolescence, and into intensely personal family suffering.

    Exploration of such history, however, serves to heal wounds and end hatred, a process in which the

    female figure serves a crucial function in enabling the poet to confront the "primal hurt."

    The Dead Kingdom, livre le plus recent de John Montague, reprend un theme examine deja dans

    The Rough Field douze annees auparavant: la continuity tragique en Ulster, la province du poete, du passe avec l'epoque actuelle. C'est un theme qui reunit l'histoire de la nation a celle de la famille,

    et qui engage le temps, le milieu, la langue et la poesie. Apprenant la nouvelle du mort de sa mere,

    le poete se met en route la traversee du paysage irlandais; il traverse le passe, surtout son enfance

    et adolescence, et il voyage au fond des souffrances familiales et tres individuelles. L'exploration d'une telle histoire cependant reussit a guerir les plaies et a mettre un terme aux haines. La femme

    est tout a fait indispensable dans ce procede parce qu'elle rend le poete capable d'affronter la blessure

    primordiale ("the primal hurt').

    John Montague is writing at the height of his powers. With the publication in 1984 of his seventh book of poems, The Dead Kingdom, he has brought together his major themes and concerns, expressing himself with a fluency, honesty and sensitivity comparable to the best of writing in English anywhere. And that is a large claim in a year which saw another major volume by another

    Irish poet, Station Island, by Seamus Heaney, which has attracted international

    acclaim. Yet as with Heaney and Thomas Kinsella, Montague's stature as a

    contemporary Irish poet is assured. Moreover, that stature depends in no small

    measure upon his marrying of universal themes and the Irish poetic tradition.

    Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of contemporary Irish poetry in English is its increased inheritance, almost rediscovery, of the ancient poetic tradition,

    Gaelic not English, distinctive in its language, its forms, symbols and archetypes. What I shall attempt to show is how Montague draws upon that inheritance, not out of nostalgia for a distant and glorious Irish past, but from his need to

    understand the present and prepare a future for himself, his family, and his culture. From the publication of Poisoned Lands [P.L.] (1961), his first volume, to

    the present, Montague has relied upon particular recurrent themes and figures, and, for all their Irish setting, not exclusively Irish: love and the nature of

    relationship between lovers; land, landscape and a sense of place; continuity and

    succession; loss, suffering, pain, whether through division, failed relationships,

    The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 12, 1 (June, 1986) 35-52

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  • 36 Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

    political exile, or time itself and its inevitable partner, death. The people and the community might be recognisably Irish

    - more particularly Co. Tyrone in

    Northern Ireland -

    but the concerns are shared by people anywhere, by poets in

    any literary tradition. Mutability reflects the human, not exclusively Irish, con

    dition. Even the historical character of the Irish tradition, irrevocably affected

    (some would say doomed) by English colonialism, is equally not exclusive.

    Other nations have suffered a similarly calculated destruction of political, cultural

    and linguistic identity. What John Montague has shown, however, is how his own painful, often tragic family history comes to reflect the national conflict; how problems with language, communication, self-expression, often intensely

    personal in origin, can epitomise the dilemma of the poet in Irish society; and

    how, by renewing continuity with the broken, threatened, perhaps dying Irish

    poetic tradition, the contemporary poet can articulate, with renewed force and

    meaning, concerns which go beyond mere place and time to speak for us all. It

    is this distinctive marriage of the personal, national, historic and linguistic, which lies at the heart of Montague's achievement and which contributes vitally to the

    healing nature of his art.

    Pain has been a constant feature of Montague's world from the beginning: a rural community is not renowned for its ease, particularly when mortally

    divided by bigotry, sectarianism, nationalism, a sense of hurt which perpetuates enmities and differences spanning centuries. The poet has done more than record

    such pain: he has approached it with compassion and understanding, sympathising with the old, wounded, fearful, isolated members of his community, granting them not just dignity but symbolic status. "Gaunt figures of fear and of friend

    liness,/ For years they trespassed on my dreams" {PoisonedLands, 15). The old

    people indeed reflect the dying character of that rural community - of farms

    abandoned, lives beaten down by hardship, social structures broken by the drift of people to the towns and by increasing mechanisation. The situation in Ireland

    is at least as old as the late eighteenth century and Goldsmith's Deserted Village, and constitutes, as Montague has said, one of the great modern themes. Mon

    tague's Tyrone suffers not only from political and religious divisions; it is also a way of life decaying during the poet's own childhood and, as he records in

    The Rough Field with a deliberate and ironic echo of the auctioneer's patter,

    "going, going, GONE ..." (80). However, more than in any previous volume,

    Montague reveals there the tragedy of his province, from the Flight of the Earls - the O'Neills - and the Ulster Plantations of the sixteenth and seventeenth

    centuries, to the present and renewed Troubles. But it is also a personal tragedy,

    in which the poet's family are players:


    and again, the dregs of disillusion churned in our Northern parents' guts

    to set their children's teeth on edge

    {Rough Field, 39)

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  • The Healing Art of John Montague 37

    The poet's Republican father, first on the run, then forced into a lifetime's exile

    in Brooklyn; uncles imprisoned by the British, to serve later in the Free State

    Army and so defend the partition of North and South which followed the 1921

    Treaty; grandfather previously in the nineteenth century punished savagely for

    speaking Irish at school, eventually suffering alienation not just from culture

    and community but from home, finding his "parents' hearth/growing slowly alien" (35)

    - all contribute to the family tragedy and suffering. The imagery of a wound, particularly affecting speech and articulation, is dominant. The poet's own speech impediment is one more painful and debilitating evidence of that wound. In The Rough Field time collapses: Elizabethan and modern merge, to

    show the relentless continuity of a tragic inheritance; and the players merge also, so that national events and family history become superimposed upon one another. The Rough Field is an agonising volume to read: the continuity of the past with

    the present serves to heighten the awful sense of an historical destiny, binding the people of Ulster to a perpetual wheel of pain, exploitation, division and

    murderous enmity.

    Twelve years later, in his latest volume, The Dead Kingdom, Montague once again turns his attention to Northern Ireland, drawn this time by his mother's death. Indeed, the two factors

    - death and the North - seem irrevocably bound

    together: "The farther North you travel, the colder it gets" {Dead Kingdom, 44); or again, "That trembling needle/pointing always North./Approaching our Border/

    why does my gorge rise?" (45); or in imagery Canadian readers can readily respond to:

    Northwards stream the wild

    geese, through the long Polar

    night (the bewildered cries

    of the newly dead, shocked

    spirits hurled out of life) with the slow flap of wide

    thunderous wings lured by an ultimate coldness, that

    magnetic needle wavering,

    trembling always North.


    Indeed, the volume's very title includes in one of its several senses the province of Ulster. Moreover, while the poet's awareness of his land's divisions may

    heighten as he approaches the border, he is made equally aware, through the land itself and through the Irish poetic tradition, of the perpetual nature of his

    deathliness and destruction. He remembers Mountjoy's name for this country -

    "Ire land" (33) -

    Mountjoy himself a hated name in Ireland, not just as represen tative of English colonialism but as held personally responsible for the final

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  • 38 Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

    breakup of the old Gaelic order in the early seventeenth century. If Ireland is

    appropriately so called, Mountjoy bears some responsibility for that appropriate ness. However, Montague remembers a similar judgement by a Gaelic poet of

    the same period, Tadhg Dall O Huiginn: "(Recall blind Tadhg's name/for our

    land: Sword Land)." And as Montague comments upon the present, echoing his

    predecessor's judgement, "Still, a violence lurks" (33). We ought to remember, moreover, how Montague shares not only judgement but name with his seven

    teenth-century brother poet: on at least one occasion (Fair House iv) he has derived his family name from "Tadhg," Irish in one sense at least for "poet," but a derogatory and sectarian label in the North today. However, it is a judgement he traces to even earlier sources

    - to Old Norse and even older sources still

    evident in myth and in the landscape itself. He offers a version, therefore, of a curse from Njal's Saga

    - "The land of Ireland/will suffer a grief/that will never

    heal" (Dead Kingdom 49) - or he points to the ancient earthworks in Co.

    Longford, tracing an earlier border, of Uladh, the ancient Province of Ulster.

    Appropriately enough, the earthworks are known as "the Black Pig's Dyke," that animal symbolising in Irish myth not just death and destruction but apocalypse (as, for example, in W.B. Yeats' "Valley of the Black Pig").

    Ballinagh, its flat, main street; that sudden, sharp turn North.

    Nearby, a ridge of the Dunchaladh, The Black Pig's dyke, or Race, -

    the ancient frontier of Uladh.

    And now he races forever,

    a lonely fearsome creature,

    furrowing a trough we may

    never fill, the ancient guardian

    of these earthworks of anger.


    Equally relevant, however, is the function of landscape. The Black Pig's Dyke is in sharp contrast to the near-idyllic and nostalgic recollections in the volume of the poet's childhood holidays during the war with his cousins in Co.

    Longford, in Goldsmith country. And several landscapes are fondly recalled and described - Granard, Abbeylara, the strings of loughs and tributaries of the Shannon. Even the vast and monotonous expanse of the bog of Allen can be seen as "our land's wet matrix" and therefore as possessing its own beauty, like

    "a great cloak torn into/tatters of light, the warm/colours of heather deepened,/ dyed to near violet, all/the air trembling, lambent" (25). The cloak image Mon

    tague has used elsewhere - above all in his 1978 volume, The Great Cloak


    to encompass love and a woman's body, landscape and more particularly Ireland,

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  • The Healing Art of John Montague 39

    but also the shaping spirit of the imagination. The Bog of Allen is thus a matrix,

    womb, source of life and creativity. But because the Bog of Allen was also the

    ancient hunting ground of the Fianna, legendary Irish heroes of the third century A.D., it is a landscape resonant with history. The bog reveals primeval forests

    in bog oak, antlers from the now extinct Great Irish Elk, and serves generally as memory bank of a pagan culture and society which gave way before the

    advent of Christianity. (A similar preoccupation with the bog may be found, of

    course, in Seamus Heaney.) Montague writes of the decline of the "Bog Royal" into an economic resource to be exploited ruthlessly

    - a rape of the land. Percy

    French's "Paddy Reilly" returning to Ballyjamesduff in order to find an Irish Paradise will be sorely stretched, finding instead a landscape torn up and packaged in polythene bags of turf. And yet the landscape still moves the poet's imagination, to see

    A nomadic world of

    hunters and hunted; beaten moons of gold,

    a flash of lost silver,

    figures coiling around a bronze trumpet mouth;

    a marginal civilization

    shading to the sound

    of bells in monastic

    sites, above the still

    broadening Shannon,

    or sheltered on some lake

    shore or wooded island:

    from Derg to Devenish,

    Lough Gowna to Erne.


    The "coiling" La Tene figures decorating the ancient trumpet may be found

    among treasures of the National Museum of Ireland - a particularly fine example

    is from Loughnashade, Co. Armagh - but they parallel also the circular, cyclical

    journey Montague undertakes throughout the volume. Moreover, the pagan Irish

    civilization was indeed a "marginal" one, situated on the geographical extremes of Western Europe but thriving culturally to the extent that, during the Bronze

    Age (particularly the eighth century B.C.), Ireland became an exporter of ar

    tefacts, of craftsmanship and technical achievement, just as later, by the eighth century A.D., Ireland became an exporter of Christianity, of monasticism, of

    literacy and calligraphy. "Marginal," then, does not imply dismissal; rather, as

    the poet concludes in another poem elsewhere, living "on the edge is best" {Great

    Cloak, 62).

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  • 40 Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

    What is evident in a great number of poems, as in those lines above, is

    Montague's response to the resonance of place-names. That resonance consists

    of more than word music; rather, it depends upon the ancient Irish poetic tradition

    of dinnseanchas or 'Lore of Famous Places.' For the dinnseanchas served as an

    historical record (like the bog), focussing upon places and place-names: in Robin

    Flower's description, "by the accretion of centuries there came into existence a

    large body of literature in prose and verse, forming a kind of Dictionary of

    National Topography, which fitted the famous sites of the country each with its

    appropriate legend. It was one of the obligations of the poet to have this knowledge

    ready at call ..." (Greene, 29). Montague's response to the place-names thus

    takes on an extra dimension; the same phenomenon is recognisable in the poetry

    of Seamus Heaney and is central to a play such as Brian Friel's Translations.

    It is a way of reading the landscape the loss of which in The Rough Field the

    poet mourned:

    The whole landscape a manuscript We had lost the skill to read, A part of our past disinherited; But fumbled, like a blind man,

    Along the finger tips of instinct.

    (Rough Field, 20)

    Both Montague and Heaney learnt Irish through, amongst other things, attention to place-names. In Montague's words


    Most of the place names were pure Gaelic: Garvaghey (The Rough Field), Glencull (The Glen of the Hazels), Clogher (The Golden

    Stone). . . . none of the farmers had enough Gaelic to translate

    the names of the townlands. A dark-faced fanatical priest tried to teach us some after school hours. I thought him a fearsome bore

    until I greeted the last Gaelic speaker in the area after mass one

    Sunday, and saw the light flood across her face.

    ("Tyrone: the Rough Field", 203-4)

    However, as we have seen, the landscape often reflects longstanding tragedy and pain; it can also reflect mass destruction and fearful barbarism, as in the

    poem, "The Plain of Blood." Montague draws upon the ancient myth involving Cromm Croich and the plain known as Mag Slecht (literally, the Plain of Hacking/ Cutting). Among the dinnseanchas is this question and answer:

    'Mag Slecht, whence was it named? Answer: It is there the kin-idol of Ireland was, i.e., Crom Croich, and the twelve stone idols around him; but he was of gold. And until the coming of Patrick he was the god of every people that occupied Ireland. It is to him

    they used to offer the first-born of every stock and the first-born

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  • The Healing Art of John Montague 41

    of every family. It is to him that the King of Ireland, Tigernmas son of Follach, came at Samhain, together with the men and women

    of Ireland, to adore him. And they all bowed down before him,

    until their foreheads, and the soft part of their noses, and the caps of their knees, and the points of their elbows, broke; so that

    three-fourths of the Men of Ireland died of these prostrations. Hence Mag Slecht. (Rees and Rees ,%)

    Montague questions modern scholarship which now considers the arrangement of stones around the figure of Cromm Croich as probably an early form of

    calendar. Equally, Montague dismisses "Visions/of an abstract evil" as "an eva

    sive fiction." Rather, he insists, "The evil sprang from/our own harsh hearts,"

    and the consequences are with us still. (I quote the poem in its entirety.)

    Near here, he stood,

    the Stooped one,

    Lord of Darkness, drinker of blood, eater of the young,

    King of the void, The Golden Stone.

    But are such visions

    of an abstract evil

    an evasive fiction:

    the malignant Cromm

    but the warming sun,

    his attendant stones

    the whirling seasons?

    The evil sprang from our own harsh hearts:

    thronged inhabitants

    of this turning world,

    cramped into a corner,

    labelled by legend, Ulster or Northern Ireland.

    Source of such malevolence,

    a long-nurtured bitterness.

    No Nordic family feud, arm & thighbone scattered

    {the ravens have gorged

    on a surfeit of human flesh) but wise imperial policy

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  • 42 Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

    Hurling the small peoples

    against each other, Orange

    Order against Defender,

    neighbour against neighbour, blind rituals of violence, our homely Ulster swollen

    to a Plain of Blood. /rx , r,. . Ar_, A^ (Dead Kingdom, 47-48)

    Although I am no Irish scholar, there seems to me a recognisable irony at work

    here, when the verb "sleachtaim" meaning 'I bow, genuflect, worship, submit,'

    is so close to another verb, "sleachtaim" meaning T hack, cut, fell.' Mag Slecht

    is indeed appropriately named.

    The volume began with the poet's journey northwards, called back by news

    of his mother's death. The curragh from which he has been fishing off Roche's

    Point in Co. Cork, the poet's home, and which has to be lifted on to trestles on

    the beach, thus parallels the coffin which will be similarly lifted, setting forth

    the dead mother on her final journey in her ship of death. (The imagery is

    reinforced by the illustration of the Egyptian Ship of the Dead at the beginning of the volume's first section, although the entire volume follows various journeys across various landscapes.) But just as the Egyptian image reflects the soul's

    journey to the Land of the Blessed, so too the journey northwards is not without

    its blessings. Montague describes it as "a journeying back,/the salmon's leap/& pull to the source" (11), which suitably captures elements of instinctive compul sion, of completion of cycles, but, equally, death and rebirth into new life. For

    the journey northwards for his mother's funeral proves ultimately positive. The

    volume as a whole is a product of that experience, not simply as articulating the

    poet's grief but as coming to terms with himself, his own past and that of his

    family, and his relationship with his parents. His use of Irish literary traditions, such as the dinnseanchas, enables him to achieve a proper distance, so as not

    to be swamped by sentimentality or narcissistic confessionalism, but also enables

    him to recognise the extent to which his own peculiarly personal tragedy parallels that of his province, past and present merging in fearful union. The Egyptian Ship of the Dead or the salmon's spawning cycle make explicit the poet's awareness that the temporal process merges also with the process of transforma

    tion or renewal. Time is both destructive and creative, and its creativity depends upon that very antithesis, a marriage of opposites which makes progress possible.

    My version of The Dead Kingdom to this point has focussed exclusively on pain, division, loss, death. Yet what is especially impressive about the volume

    is the affirming voice of the poet, coming to terms with his own loss, particularly as it centres on his mother and his relationship with her, and his transforming that loss into a new life with which the volume closes. His mother, as he says, is a "fertile source of guilt and pain"

    - which is not to gloss over suffering and

    tragedy but to recognise their creative character. And while both parents are

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  • The Healing Art of John Montague 43

    involved, it is the poet's mother in particular who proves as fertile a matrix for the poet as the Bog of Allen for Ireland. In both cases the source of that creativity is the feminine, as it has frequently been for Montague and as it has traditionally

    been for the ancient Irish poet.*

    Montague's poetry has from the beginning been distinguished for its exact

    and vivid descriptions and for its evocation of a landscape. Yet no matter how

    depopulated in Tyrone the land becomes, the dominant figures remain the old,

    particularly the old woman or cailleach (hag). 'Hag' has to our ears unpleasant connotations and certainly Montague's old women are not free of their witch-like

    qualities. Nevertheless, the term more particularly applies to their age, their

    weather-beaten and time-suffering bodies, and above all their insight gained through suffering and endurance. The figure of the hag is an ancient one, as

    Montague indicates in his reference to "Sweeney's Hag of the Mill" (24), a

    figure in a famous early Irish work and identified in our time by Robert Graves as a version of the White Goddess. She represents Ireland, like the old woman at the conclusion of Yeats's play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, reborn as "a young

    girl . . . with the walk of a queen." And indeed Ireland has had a long line of

    goddesses, often in triplicate (like the triple Brigid or Fotla, Banba and Eriu, who greeted the Sons of Mil when they made their famous legendary invasion of Ireland.) They symbolise in turn what in the Celtic tradition is called

    "Sovereignty": the king inheriting the nation must unite in sacred marriage with

    Sovereignty, and numerous myths and accounts survive to indicate their funda

    mental source in fertility myths involving a Great Mother goddess (Rees and

    Rees, 73-74; Gerald of Wales, 110). The cailleach is one face or embodiment of that Triple Goddess, her triple nature corresponding to the waxing and waning of the life cycle and its transformation into new life. That nature accounts for

    fertility, whether of the body or of crops, or of the self itself, the Imagination. It is this last which inevitably attracts Montague to the myth, because the cailleach

    becomes another face of the Muse, a source of inspiration and illumination, and,

    like the Mother goddess, is frequently associated with the element of water,

    especially rivers, springs and wells (Ross, 20-33). The term Montague used earlier to describe his mother was a "fertile source," (my itals.), signifying not

    just origins but spring of water, fountain, fountain-head. The 'slow' movement

    or section in The Dead Kingdom, called "This Neutral Realm" and evoking his Co. Longford childhood holidays, contains numerous references to water, to the

    many loughs dotting the landscapes. But it opens and closes with explicit reference to wells, traditionally associated

    - and Yeats helps us again with his At the Hawk's Well - with places where healing or spiritual wholeness may be obtained. It may be that such wells have in later centuries been christianised, but earlier, in pagan Celtic culture, they were associated with the Eternal Feminine or Great Mother,

    * See Maine Cruise O'Briens "The Female Principle in Gaelic Poetry" in Woman in Irish Legend, Life and Literature (1983).

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  • 44 Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

    source of fertility and creativity. The first poem in the revised edition (1977) of

    Montague's Poisoned Lands has him as water carrier, in one prosaic sense

    carrying buckets of water for the farm animals and for home use, but in another more symbolic sense being initiated into a fictive world, the world of imagination and creativity. He uses the same imagery of initiation and creativity in "The

    Source," in The Rough Field, and there are other instances elsewhere in his

    work. The hag figure is irrevocably bound up with the element of water as the

    anonymous ninth-century Irish poem, "The Hag of Beare," indicates. (Montague

    himself has translated and commented upon the Old Irish poem.) While the Hag of Beare epitomises all humanity suffering at the hands of time and mortality, she also represents the painful means to rebirth and transformation. As Montague describes her in the lines serving as epigraph to "This Neutral Realm," she is a

    "Source of lost knowledge" (24) - one more instance in the use of the term

    'source' of the correlation of water and origins.

    Related to the regenerative element of water, the hag figure is also and

    equally traditionally related to music and poetry. Imagery of springs, rivers,

    wells, whether within the Irish or Celtic traditions or beyond, is commonly associated with the Muse or imagination

    - for example, Hippocrene, the fountain

    of the Muses on Mount Helicon. Not coincidentally, then, Montague's volume

    resounds in songs, often the natural consequence of Irish family life, but par

    ticipating, nevertheless, within a larger context which in the last resort includes

    the poet's art itself and sources of inspiration. There are fragments of songs, then, surfacing in The Dead Kingdom, whether of "Count McCormack's/silvery tongue soaring in/Kathleen Mavourneen, or/an old rustic bridge that/bends o'er

    a murmuring stream' (16-17), or of Percy French's famous song, "Come back,

    Paddy Reilly" (to Ballyjamesduff, as I have already indicated, a paradise to be

    found in the Co. Longford of Montague's summer holidays or "Nelly Dean,"

    songs from his adolescence there or, earlier, associated with his parents' courting

    year; songs sung once more as his father returns in his last years to reunion with

    the poet's mother, still his Molly Bawn (63). The moment caught in "The Silver

    Flask," describing a Christmas Midnight Mass, is thus full of poignancy and


    and from the choirloft an organ booms

    angels we have heard on high, with

    my father joining warmly in, his broken tenor soaring, faltering,

    a legend in dim bars of Brooklyn (that sacramental moment of stillness

    among exiled, disgruntled men) now raised vehemently once again

    in the valleys he had sprung from,

    startling the stiff congregation

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  • The Healing Art of John Montague 45

    with fierce blasts of song, while our mother sat silent beside him, sad but proud, an unaccustomed

    blush mantling her wan countenance.


    Their marriage, exile, and subsequent separate lives are further hurtful conse

    quences of Ireland's divisions, of Sword Land. Having suffered, then, from the

    twentieth-century political history of their nation, having been driven into exile

    and eventual separation - father remaining in Brooklyn, mother returning to

    Fintona, Co. Tyrone, poet living with father's sisters at Garvaghey - the family

    is for a while at least reunited in song, a communion paralleled in the celebration

    of the Mass and of the birth of the Christ child. The father's tenor voice, now

    broken, had been legendary among other Irish exiles in Brooklyn bars; the mother

    remains, significantly, silent; the poet records the moment - an epiphany, in

    effect, marking the brief restoration of the family circle - another cycle completed.

    The poet sings then, like his father, in the face of great suffering and

    personal tragedy, and sings not to perpetuate old hatreds but to bring them to

    an end. The family circle restored is in sharp contrast to "the iron circle of

    retaliation" of which he writes in "Red Branch (A Blessing)":

    Sing a song for the people, so grimly holding on, Protestant and Catholic, fingered at teabreak, shot inside their home: the iron circle of retaliation.

    Sing an end to sectarianism,

    Fenian and Free Presbyterian,

    the punishment slowly grown more monstrous than the crime,

    an enormous seeping bloodstain.


    Music and song, and by natural extension, poetry, are all means by which healing may replace hatred. The enemy, however, is also time itself, that Mutability of which the Elizabethan poet, Spenser, sang while composing those cantos on his Irish estate, an estate violently seized and later violently destroyed. And yet earlier Irish poets envisaged such mutability as one more aspect of the hag Sovereignty-Ireland, recognising that within time at least both destruction and

    creativity co-exist.

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  • 46 Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

    Chiding Spenser, I yet sing of the goddess Mutability, dark Lady of Process, our devouring Queen.


    A latter-day emblem of such Process is the figure of the old woman.

    Three female figures prove crucial to the poet's imagination in The Dead

    Kingdom - his wife, Evelyn; their recently born daughter; but the dominant

    figure is the third, the poet's mother herself. It is not farfetched to see in this

    trio of females the ancient Irish Triple Goddess, governing Time or Process, whose triple form is echoed in numerous Irish instances, as we have seen. For

    surely mother, wife and daughter signify the temporal and cyclical nature of life

    itself, proceeding from matrix, birth, and death, to rebirth and further continuation of the life cycle. It is the child created, like the poem produced, out of love, who gives the poet hope for the future.

    However, in turning to the dominant figure in the poet's triad, his own

    mother, Montague recognises a "fertile source of guilt and pain" (92). And while

    the entire volume traces the circling path of family history, it is in the final two

    sections that the poet's relationship with this mother is explored. Montague does so with the utmost tact and sensitivity. The ugly and hurtful are not evaded but

    confronted honestly; equally, the poet's wit includes the hurt: his father, for

    example, in Brooklyn during the Depression,

    unemployed and angry living off charity.

    Finding a home only in brother John's speakeasy.

    Beneath the stoup a flare of revelry.

    And yet you found time to croon to your last son.

    Dear father, a gracenote.

    That Christmas, you did

    find a job, guarding a

    hole in the navy yard. Elated, you celebrated so well, you fell in.

    Not a model father.

    / was only happy when I was drunk

    you said, years later,

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  • The Healing Art of John Montague 47

    building a fire in

    a room I was working in.


    The gracenote, Christmas season, celebration, all parallel the situation described

    earlier when the father returns to Tyrone, his broken tenor voice rising above

    those of the rest of the congregation at the Christmas Mass. In both instances

    the poet supplies another kind of gracenote, describing without accusing, and

    bringing healing with his forgiveness. The mother too is anything but idealised: the poet might, on one occasion,

    withhold from her the fact of his marriage breakup -

    "gentleness forbade," he

    says. Besides, "Should one disturb/the dreams of the old;/her whole life domi

    nated/by an antique code?" (60) On another, however, he does not hide the

    offensive bigotry which marks the mother's memories of America, no less a

    wounding than the sectarianism the poet has condemned in contemporary Ulster:

    (cops and robbers,

    cigarstore Indians

    & coalblack niggers, bathtub gin and

    Jewish neighbours) (67)

    The hurt, however, extends also to the poet. For this particular poem, "A Muddy Cup," had previously appeared in an earlier volume, A Slow Dance (1975)


    Montague has regularly reprinted poems in new volumes where the new context

    in which they appear gives them a new dimension. (The most obvious is "The Wild Dog Rose" in Tides (1970) describing the attempted rape of an old woman

    which, when reprinted in The Rough Field, takes on more explicitly political meaning, suggesting the rape of Ireland.) When "The Muddy Cup" appeared earlier, however, it lacked the final stanza it now possesses, withheld, presum

    ably, because the poet was unable or unwilling fully to articulate his hurt. As

    Montague describes it, the mother, like a cat with her kittens, returns to Tyrone

    without her husband but also, now, fostering her youngest son, the poet, among his father's family. The suggestion of rejection and abandonment and the sense

    of acute hurt felt by the young child are sensitively caught. The divided society of Co. Tyrone is further paralleled in the disintegration of the poet's family:

    history repeats itself on a smaller scale, in the family context. Hence, the mother

    returns alone from Brooklyn,

    a mother cat

    intent on safety,

    dragging her first

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  • 48 Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

    batch of kittens back

    to the familiar womb-warm

    basket of home

    (all but the runt, the littlest one, whom

    she gave to be fostered

    in Garvaghey, seven miles away;

    her husband's old home).


    The volume traces various journeys across the Irish landscape as the poet

    visits his aged mother or follows her coffin to the grave; through time, past,

    present and future; or, what each of those journeys involves, a retracing of the

    poet's origins to "a primal hurt." When his own daughter can rush, when hurt,

    for comfort to her mother, the poet is made aware of his own origins -


    deprivation, in "absence" rather than "presence," in what he calls "a primal hurt":

    All roads wind backwards to it.

    An unwanted child, a primal hurt.

    I caught fever on the big boat

    that brought us away from America -

    away from my lost parents.

    Surely my father loved me,

    teaching me to croon, Ragtime Cowboy

    Joe, swaying in his saddle as he sings, as he did, drunkenly

    dropping in from the speakeasy.

    So I found myself shipped back to his home, in an older country,

    transported to a previous century,

    where his sisters restored me,

    natural love flowering around me.


    The pain is evident in the term "transported," with its contrary meanings of

    ecstasy, conveyance, emigration, but above all of forcible shipment of convicts.

    The young child is treated as if criminal, certainly brutally isolated and badgered on his return to Tyrone by a bullying teacher. The "primal hurt" surfaces again in the speech impediment the poet has only in adulthood overcome. That the

    poet is able to articulate his inarticulation and move us to share his pain is itself almost too obvious an irony to point out. Yet it is crucial to my argument, for

    it is poetry, like his paternal aunts, which brings release to the stammering child but which also offers illumination of past, present and future to the adult poet.

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  • The Healing Art of John Montague 49

    And the hurt ran briefly underground to break out in a schoolroom

    where I was taunted by a mistress

    who hunted me publicly down

    to near speechlessness.

    So this is our brightest infant? Where did he get that outlandish accent?

    What do you expect, with no parents,

    sent back from some American slum:

    none of you are to speak like him!

    Stammer, impediment, stutter:

    she had found out my lode of shame, and soon I could no longer utter

    those magical words I had begun to love, to dolphin delight in.

    And not for two stumbling decades

    would I manage to speak straight again.

    Grounded for the second time

    my tongue became a rusted hinge

    until the sweet oils of poetry

    eased it and light flooded in.


    However, just as poetry brings release in expression of the primal hurt, so

    too death brings revelation and increased understanding. The poems to Mon

    tague's mother, for all their painful, anguished exploration of his origins, are

    loving, tender, compassionate, accepting, lacking in accusation. They embrace

    the hurt, recognising its fearful parallels in ancient Irish myth and in modern Irish history. Their significance finally goes beyond mere self to include all

    mankind. Moreover, as absence and presence are necessary contraries in Mon

    tague's dialectic, or the hag capable of transformation, an Ireland reborn, so too

    the poet's mother remains a "fertile source of guilt and pain." Not just individual

    poems but the volume as a whole substantiates that claim. It is wholly in character

    then that the final poems move from mother and wife to daughter, suggesting in one sense inheritance and continuity, but in another the completion of the old circle and the beginning of a new, more hopeful one.

    One reason for such hope is the liberation of the poet into light, poetry and

    understanding. Poetic expression here is bound up with expression of self, as

    may be seen in some of the most personal poems Montague has written. Approp

    riately enough, "The Locket" is the final poem to the poet's mother, the remaining

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  • 50 Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

    two poems involving wife and daughter. For the image of a locket captures the

    sense both of treasure, psychological terms of repression. What Montague's

    poem traces is this dual sense. It is revealed in the poet's difficult birth, the

    mother's disappointment at not having a girl, her inability to nurse him, her

    fostering him among her husband's family, and her lonely existence in Fintona.

    The effects upon the child are never stated, although they have been implied in

    previous poems. The poet does not seek to blame but to understand, express

    and forgive. Moreover, if the hurt of the mother's behaviour towards her child has brought silence, speechlessness, failure to express, it remains nevertheless

    a fertile hurt, giving rise to the poetry itself. Furthermore, after his mother's

    death the poet learns of one more instance of her inability to express a love she

    clearly felt, an instance caught appropriately then in the locket worn always about her neck and preserving from time's harm a picture of her fostered child.

    Sing a last song for the lady who has gone, fertile source of guilt and pain. The worst birth in the annals of Brooklyn, that was my cue to come on,

    my first claim to fame.

    Naturally, she longed for a girl, and all my infant curls of brown

    couldn't excuse my double blunder

    coming out, both the wrong sex,

    and the wrong way around.

    Not readily forgiven,

    So you never nursed me

    and when all my father's songs

    couldn't sweeten the lack of money,

    when poverty comes through the door

    love flies up the chimney,

    your favourite saying,

    Then you gave me away,

    might never have known me,

    if I had not cycled down

    to court you like a young man,

    teasingly untying your apron,

    drinking by the fire, yarning

    Of your wild, young days. which didn't last long, for you,

    lovely Molly, the belle of your small town,

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  • The Healing Art of John Montague 51

    landed up mournful and chill

    as the constant rain that lashes it, wound into your cocoon of pain.

    Standing in that same hallway, don't come again, you say, roughly,

    / start to get fond of you, John, and then you are up and gone;

    the harsh logic of a forlorn woman

    resigned to being alone.

    And still, mysterious blessing, I never knew, until you were gone,

    that, always around your neck,

    you wore an oval locket

    with an old picture in it, of a child in Brooklyn.


    The inability to express her love is, in the context of the volume as a whole, the consequence not just of the Montague family troubles but of the political divisions of Ireland itself. While those divisions remain, love and place find

    expression in poetry, transforming absence into presence and constituting, like

    the mother's locket, "amulets against loneliness" (95). Once more the hag has

    been transformed into a young girl with the walk of a queen, now in the form

    of the poet's wife, while the hopes of poet and wife are images as "frail rope-ladders/ across fuming oblivion" (94). Love, home, place, poetry, all combine to bring the volume and the poet to a secure and positive conclusion.

    The twin pitfalls past which Montague has had to navigate are sentimentality and pretentiousness. In my view, he has done so while expressing intimate and

    moving experiences and making sense of those experiences through his awareness

    of time and mortality -

    and of "the dark lady of Process" who presides over

    them - but also through the distinctively Irish tradition upon which he draws.

    The ancient Irish poet was a person to contend with, capable of writing curse

    poems to bring out blotches on your face or cause your herds to miscarry, or of

    extravagant boasts asserting his social, professional, indeed visionary status. The

    fde was a combination of priest, holy man, medicine man, shaman, and in that

    most ancient of roles wore a cloak of feathers to symbolise his function as

    conductor of souls to another world. The Dead Kingdom contains several diverse

    journeys, but the most positive one conducts the reader back to the primal hurt in order to bring about healing and understanding. For healing extends beyond

    therapy gained from expression of that primal hurt. It also brings understanding of the wound's source, recognition of the irrevocable marriage of creation and

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  • 52 Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

    destruction and, consequently, of the regeneration implicit in that marriage of

    contraries. The emblem Montague has chosen for the cover of The Dead Kingdom and one he has used previously is of the mysterious Janus-headed stone figure on Boa Island in Lower Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh. Its janiform nature reflects

    ancient awareness of that marriage of contraries which lies at the heart of Process

    and which is epitomised in the hag figure. Moreover, the magical powers, social

    status and responsibility of the ancient Irish poet find their latter-day expression in Montague's own acknowledgement. For while family and national histories

    follow similarly tragic and hurtful paths, the poet dismisses fatalism and evasion.

    The hurt is primal to Montague personally but it is also a hurt implicit in

    mankind's mortality. Yet man remains responsible for his self and his world.

    Consequently, the journey is completed by the end of the volume, both poet and

    reader brought back to their point of departure. Like the ancient mariner's wedding guest, however, both are now sadder and wiser, with wounds healed and under

    standing gained, with the recognition that the primal hurt is in the last resort

    existential and affecting us all.


    Cruise O'Brien, Maire. "The Female Principle in Gaelic Poetry." Woman in

    Irish Legend, Life and Literature. Ed. S.F. Gallagher. Gerrards Cross, Bucks.:

    Colin Smythe, 1983. 26-37.

    Gerald of Wales. The History and Topography of Ireland. Trans, and intro. John

    J. O'Meara. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1982.

    Greene, David. "Early Irish Literature." Early Irish Society. Ed. Myles Dillon.

    Cork: Mercier, 1954. 22-35.

    Montague, John. The Dead Kingdom. Dublin: Dolmen, 1984.

    _A Fair House: Versions of Irish Poetry. Dublin: Cuala, 1972.

    _The Great Cloak. Dublin: Dolmen, 1978.

    _Poisoned Lands. Dublin: Dolmen, 1977.

    _The Rough Field. Dublin: Dolmen, 1972.

    _"Tyrone: the Rough Field." Conor Cruise O'Brien Introduces

    Ireland. Ed. Owen Dudley Edwards. London: Deutsch, 1969. 203-5.

    Rees, Alwyn, and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961.

    Ross, Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. London:

    Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

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    Article Contentsp. 35p. 36p. 37p. 38p. 39p. 40p. 41p. 42p. 43p. 44p. 45p. 46p. 47p. 48p. 49p. 50p. 51p. 52

    Issue Table of ContentsThe Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jun., 1986), pp. 1-116Front MatterEditorial [p. 3-3]The Unpartitioned Intellect: Dante, Savanarola, and an Old Sign [pp. 5-9]"Masked with Matthew Arnold's Face": Joyce and Liberalism [pp. 11-22]Down among the Dead: Elements of Irish Language and Mythology in James Joyce's "Dubliners" [pp. 23-34]The Healing Art of John Montague [pp. 35-52]Notes & QueriesEmancipatory Women in Late Nineteenth-Century Anglo-Irish Fiction: A Note on the Emergence of a Motif [pp. 53-58]

    Book ReviewsReview ArticleReview: News from Orchard Street: The Latest from Field Day [pp. 59-66]

    Review: Like Grains of Corn under a Mill-Stone [pp. 67-77]Review: Drama East and West [pp. 79-84]Review: untitled [pp. 85-89]Review: untitled [pp. 90-94]Review: untitled [pp. 95-97]Review: untitled [pp. 98-100]Review: untitled [pp. 101-103]Review: untitled [pp. 104-105]Review: untitled [pp. 106-108]Review: untitled [pp. 109-114]

    Back Matter