A poet at Claregalway castle

John Montague, suspected there was a serpent in the paradise of California during the Flower Power era.

John Montague, suspected there was a serpent in the paradise of California during the Flower Power era.

Once upon a time, when a renowned bardic poet visited the castle a sort of hysteria broke out. Women ran to the kitchens to prepare hogs and stuffings for a great feast. Banners and flags were flown from the battlements. Musicians urgently practiced new songs in his  praise. Tavern keepers rolled in their best barrels of beer and wine, and weapons were nosily discarded. All prisoners and lunatics were released. Fathers were invited to bring to the fore their young daughters, so that they may be admired! 

A poet was in residence. And he could be a temperamental and a highly volatile creature. In 16th century Gaelic Ireland the poet was more feared than loved. Of course mighty words were spoken about his kindness and language skills, but at the back of his host’s mind was the threat that if his hospitality and respectful words were not  lavish enough, a deadly couplet could bring social ruin. The Norman Burkes, who lorded over east Galway from the formimdable stronghold of Claregalway castle, subdued their enemies, real or imaginary, with fearsome raids on their homes and farms, burning their villages, and stealing the cattle and women. Yet, even the most fearsome of them,  Ulick na gCeann (Ulick the beheader ) was know to become a lamb when a poet was present.

But times changed. No less a king than Henry VIII urged his Irish vassels to live more at peace than at war. He encouraged loyalty, and the Claregalway Burkes were anxious to be seen to be loyal to the crown. In 1543, Henry created another Ulick the first Earl of Clanricarde, and to show his favour gave Ulick an Irish harp, which Henry himself had been gifted by the Pope some years earlier when the Pope proudly declared Henry ‘Defender of the Faith.’ 

Even popes get things wrong sometimes, and there are no certainties in history. After many centuries of Burke dominance, Claregalway castle fell to the O’Donoghues of Cork 20 years ago. The present ‘Lord of the manor’ Eamonn O’Donoghue, an ophthalmic surgeon, is a happy man who respects his neighbours as his friends. Last Saturday John Montague, regarded as Ireland’s greatest living poet, took up a brief residence in the castle’s great hall, and read many of his poems.

There was no hysteria. Instead his gentle voice, with its slight Northern accent, presented a series of images and brief stories, which fitted perfectly with the calm of a summer’s evening. He prefaced each poem with an anecdote or a memory. In one instance he recalled fishing on the Nore with Ted Hughes. But while Hughes, an expert fly-caster, landed his lure directly in the centre of a widening circle, left by trout who had peeped to see if a tasty snack was about, John recalled catching trout as a small boy in the rivers of the Clogher Valley, Co Tyrone. There children learned to gently tickle the trout, before flinging them ashore...

The two palms crossed in a cage

Under the lightly pulsing gills.

Then (entering my own enlarged

Shape, which rode on the water )

I gripped. To this day I can

taste the terror on my hands.

Travel and children 

John Montague, like Frank McCourt, had the unusual experience of having been born in Brooklyn, New York, yet, at the age of four years, was sent  back to the family’s ancestral home at Garvaghey, Co Tyrone. There he lived with spinster aunts Bridget and Freda, who ran a small farm and the local post office. At first it was difficult to adapt from street life in New York, where the children enjoyed early Mickey Mouse movies, and flattening coins on the tram lines, to the farm chores on his aunts’ farm; but he became a typical farm child absorbing the sights and sounds of his childhood. 

A life of scholarship and travel followed. He published his first poems as a student at Dublin university, and in his time was friends with Seán Ó Riada and Samuel Beckett. With Garech Browne, he co founded Claddagh Records, which pioneered, and made popular, Irish traditional music and spoken word.

He taught in several American univertsities, including Berkeley, California. When he was asked why he was leaving ‘this paradise’ (it was during the Flower Power era ), he smiled and said that he suspected there was a serpent lurking somewhere in the paradise garden. He has two daughters, Sibyl and Oonagh, by his second wife Evelyn Robson.

Lift her up, warm and close

or held at arm’s length - 

that smell, like a sheep pen,

a country hedge steaming after rain.

A love poet

Yet the presence of a poet did bestow a sense of occasion last weekend. The poet’s presence coinsided with the splendid Garden Festival, held in the castle grounds, in glorious sunshine this year. The festival is both an occasion and an event; and is now regarded as much a part of the Galway summer as are the arts festivals/film fleadhs, and the July races.

There was even wild music (and I am now conscious that it is beginning to resemble medieval times ). The normally serious Con Tempo Quartet, resident in Galway now more than 10 years, greeted the poet with a rousing gypsy courtship dance. Apparently at certain Romanian festivals, male dancers, hoping to excite the young girls, perform all sorts of gymnastic steps and gyrations with a pole, ending at their feet.

There was also a second poet on the platform that night, Mary O’Malley. Introducing John, she said that he was a poet on the side of ‘life and light’. He was a ‘love poet’, and that she would be suspicious of any poet who was not a love poet. She thanked him for giving her permission to dwell on the landscapes of her own life. 

John, with his third wife, the novelist Elizabeth Wassell, divides the year between their homes in the south of France, and west Cork. They work side by side in the same room.

His poem Silences is for her.

Poetry is a weapon and should be used,

though not in the crudity of violence.

It is a prayer before an unknown altar,

a spell to bless the silence. 


There is music beyond all this,

beyond all forms of grievance,

where anger lays its muzzle down

into the lap of silence


Or some butterfly script,

fathomed only by the other,

as supple fingers draw

a silent message from the tangible.

NOTES: John Montague has received the American Ireland Fund Literary Award. In 1998 he became Ireland’s first  Professor of Poetry. In 2010 France honoured him as a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honeur.

New Collected Poems by John Montague, published by Gallery Books, on sale in Charlie Byrnes, €25.


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