Vagabonds and vagrants inspire mind of Galway’s writer of the night

Writer Conor Montague, in Galway better known as Monty.

Writer Conor Montague, in Galway better known as Monty.

“I grew up in a Galway family steeped in manual labour, so if there was a book in my hand, I’d be asked why there wasn’t a shovel in it when I was fit for digging,” says writer Conor Montague. “I’d often be thinking up a story on the way to working on a site, because if the other fellas stopped for a listen, then you’d get a quick breather from the heavy, heavy work.”

And therein lies the seed of storytelling for Cappagh Road native Montague, better known by a generation of night-clubbing Galwegians as ‘Monty,’ the brains and brawn behind the iconic 1990s Salthill venue Vagabonds, and later often spotted working front-of-house in Dominick Street haunts and in Eglinton Street’s raucous GPO nightclub.

“We used to joke that Galway in the ’Nineties was predictable. You could go away for a few months, and when you came back, the same lads would be sitting on the same stools,” he says. It is the stories of these barstool bandidos that clearly whirl around Montague’s head, and although his latest collection of short stories, Capital Vices, is based in cities as disparate as New York, Bangkok and New Delhi – all places he has lived in – each tale has a glimmer of the madness of the west of Ireland after the sun goes down.

“As I got older, I got interested in characters, especially the really big characters of city nightlife often overlooked in Irish literature. I’m interested in their decision-making – their poor decision-making, as a man who’s made many bad decisions himself – and what makes them tick. There’s a kind of catharsis there.”

Montague, a former extreme travel guide, explains his favourite adventure stories are based on the outlandish plans hatched by individuals under the influence of drink and drugs; on a night out where the journey could just as easily end up in pilled euphoria, or in a jail cell. Many of his book’s main players are based on amalgams of Galway characters he remembers from his youth as a binman in Galway City, boxing in Furbo, London and Birmingham, or scenes he encountered later as a nightclub promoter and travelling the seedier side of the globe.

“I remember going in to this bar in New York called the Village Idiot. A guy was at the pool table with his pants around his ankles being whipped by a dominatrix. They had a rule that if you bought a round, you got a pint of water full of goldfish to feed their pet piranha. That was the entertainment for the night! It stayed with me.”

This booze and spliff-sozzled dystopian surrealism has had critics hail Monty as Flann O’Brien crossed with Hunter S Thompson. There's a bang of Kevin Barry too. The 54-year-old former prize fighter puts it down to his youth watching the comedy of Monty Python, while coming of age in the transitional, port town of Galway, where emigrants returned with embellished stories, and lonely travellers spun yarns for company.

“I suppose I look a bit rough, and I am a bit rough, and my past isn’t exactly ‘innocent’, so it’s not too hard to build a rapport with some [dodgy] people I’ve met on my own travels.” One of the shorts in Montague’s new collection, ‘All Roads Lead to Ballinasloe’, records a crystal meth-fuelled, US east coast road trip to Florida. It combines character portraits clearly inspired by punters Monty has met along his own voyages across Asia and the Americas, but there is an undercurrent of the dark history of mental institutions in the west of Ireland too. Montague précis the story with laughter, but also with a hint of understated allegory often associated with émigré playwrights from west of the Shannon. His personal reminiscences are similar:

“I go back to Galway now, and besides having spread out, little in the city has changed. But I ride in onto the junctions of the Dublin Road by motorbike, and I have to stop and think: where am I going?”

Based in London for the past decade, the University of Galway philosophy and English graduate gives theatre classes at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, and literature lessons in a Category A prison. “That’s a place with a culture of suspicion, so we explore reading and writing and themes that can touch on empathy,” he says. As an Irishman, were the British prisoners suspicious of him? “No. They thought I was one of them, transferred in from another wing! I had to show them my ID to prove I wasn’t a ‘resident’. It’s the first job I’ve ever had where in my CV I told the whole truth. The company running the classes offered me the job within hours of applying.”

A life well-lived with hard living clearly inspires Montague’s fiction. If this impresario-turned-academic, cannabis grower-turned-estate agent, and binman-turned-bareknuckle boxer ever pens his own life story, expect a hard-liquor literary tornado from the back roads of Barna, across five continents, and beyond. His stories should definitely still pause the work.

Out now, Capital Vices is the award-winning Galway author’s debut collection of short fiction. Available in paperback from Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, or order in digital and print from Reflex Press via www.conormontague.com, and on Amazon.

 

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