‘A debt of gratitude’: Richard Murphy pays tribute to John Montague

The best time of my literary life was when Liam Miller brought us together as rivals and friends in deeply impoverished Dublin

 

The death of John Montague in Nice shocks me. Being a couple of years older, I should have died first, giving him the last word. He would have expressed it well, with his notable barbed, cordial wit. I’d like to remember him in the early days of our apprenticeship.

More than 60 years ago, before we had met, I had read a poem by Montague more singingly accomplished than anything I had written. We became friends in the early 1960s, that period of hope when the tide of emigration slackened and turned.

Liam Miller had set up the Dolmen Press in the basement of 23 Upper Mount Street; John and his enchanting wife, Madeleine, a Parisian Countess, were occupying a flat in Herbert Street, round the corner from the Peppercannister Church; and Liam’s wife, Jo, had found me a rent controlled but not self-contained flat of two vast rooms on the second floor of number 11 Upper Mount Street. I sheltered there through the winter of 1960-1961 while my Galway hooker – the last to be built on the Claddagh, subject of a poem published by the Dolmen Press in limited editions with a graceful woodcut by Ruth Brand – was laid up in the safe inner harbour of Inishbofin.

Two artists, Leslie MacWeeney and Ruth Brand, lived on the top floor and shared a toilet on my landing. Tom Kinsella worked not far away under TK Whitaker at the Department of Finance, helping to boost the Irish economy and give people a new chance of living at home. Today, in that part of Dublin, artists and writers would have no hope of living so cheaply and so well and so near each other.

Therefore, in my ninetieth year, I happily acknowledge a debt of gratitude to John and to Tom for the critical advice each gave me in different ways about the poems I was writing. John, having studied at the Poetry Workshop in Iowa, taught me that poems could and should be crafted. He let me tinker a little with his, eliminating a hung participle in an otherwise beautiful lyric. I like and remember his love poems best. Tom taught me that poems must be rigorously pruned to a living core.

A high point in our friendship came when we organised, long before poetry readings became commonplace, a reading by the three of us in the ballroom of the Royal Hibernian Hotel in Dawson Street on February 3rd, 1961. We had an audience of 300, of which half came free, including Austin Clarke, with an invitation from the Dolmen Press; and the other half paid at the door. Our reading was chaired by Peadar O’Donnell; Paddy Kavanagh came to the ballroom door, declared his presence with loud resonant coughs, and refused to enter.

Thanks to a small subsidy from Peadar, left over when The Bell shut down, The Dolmen Miscellany, containing work by the best young writers of Ireland at that time, was thereafter published by Liam under the editorship of John Montague and Thomas Kinsella. By then, I had left Dublin to work on the tourist business of my boat, the Ave Maria, earning a reputation of “putting Cleggan and Inishbofin on the map”; but Liam made sure my longish poem, The Cleggan Disaster, was included. Tom had advised me to shorten the narrative, but that advice took me fifty years to take.

The vast cultural distances in those days between Dublin awakening into modernity and Inishbofin rockfast in its dreams; also between John’s Catholic rural upbringing in Co Tyrone and my Anglo-Irish Church of Ireland and English-educated colonial background, led to conflict that I regret and prefer not to remember, because the best time of my literary life was when Liam Miller brought us together as rivals and friends in deeply impoverished Dublin.

Kandy District, Sri Lanka, December 15th, 2016

Richard Murphy is a member of Aosdána. His works include  The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952–2012 (Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2012) and the memoir The Kick. A Life among Writers (Granta, 2002)

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