John Montague’s gravestone unveiled after anniversary Mass
Adrian Frazier reflects on the memorial service in Garvaghey, Co Tyrone, for a great Irish poet
Musicians play a traditional Irish tune at the unveiling of John Montague’s gravestone a year after his death.
It was the second Saturday in December, 2016, that The Irish Times published the news of the death of John Montague in Nice, France. A year later, again on the second Saturday in December, an anniversary Mass was held for him in St Matthew’s Church, Garvaghey, Co Tyrone, just up the hill from the post office, library and farmhouse, in which he grew up under the care of his aunts. December 9th, 2017 was a cold night, with snow already several inches on the ground over the hillside pastures, the pathway to the church, and the headstones in the graveyard beside, but the church filled up, both nave and transept, when Fr Michael O’Dwyer said the weekly Mass at 5 o’clock on a dark evening.
Into the church poured both those who regularly attend Saturday evening Mass there and many more – Montague and O’Meara nieces, nephews and cousins, who still live in the area, in Garvaghey, Fintona and Altamuskin, schoolteachers, local historians, GAA officials and an unusual number of lawyers (many of the Montagues, especially descendants of John’s brother Turlough, are attorneys). This both was and was not a regular Mass, for at the door the poet’s nephew Andrew Montague handed out a printed order of service that included a selection of Montague’s poems, particularly ones about Garvaghey, his neighbours (Like Dolmens Round My Childhood), a mountain spring, the penal rock in Altamuskin, Lynch’s meadow, and First Landscape, First Death, which states his wishes for the burial of his body. In the choir loft above, The Whistling Donkeys provided music, on fiddle and guitar, with tunes that were by turns Ulster, country-and-western and Celtic. It was lively and fitting.
The readings that puncutated the service on this occasion were not taken from the Old Testament or the New, but from The Collected Poetry of John Montague. Conor McCloskey, a teacher in Omagh, and member of the town’s arts committee, was one reader; another was the poet’s niece, herself a poet, Mary Montague. She is the daughter of the late Dr James Montague, and it will be no surprise to learn that her favourite poem is Border Sick Call, a lyric sequence in which the visiting poet accompanies his brother up into a snow-bound mountainous border region (which side of the border is unknown), where a patient beyond help or hope awaits the tender attentions of a long-serving medic.
After the service, Fr O’Dwyer led the family, then the other parishioners, down the sloping graveyard – everyone walking carefully over the ice – to the poet’s resting place, where a new stone had been erected. It is a white unpolished and irregular standing stone, with a kind of rough cross-like outline toward the top. It is taller than the other headstones in the graveyard, all of them black, most highly polished, but it isn’t staggeringly outsized. On its face, along with the poet’s names and the dates, these verses are inscribed after his wish (in First Landscape, First Death:
So, for myself, I would seek
No other final home, than
This remote country hiding place,
Which gave me gentle nourishment
And still gives solace.
While uttering the appropriate words of blessing, Fr O’Dwyer shook holy water out upon the standing stone and the burial plot.
Those in attendance were then welcomed to a buffet dinner in a reception room in Kelly’s Inn, which stands hard by the church and national school, along the New Omagh Road (for which, see The Rough Field). The present writer was asked to “say a few words”, and these dwelt partly on the words “hiding place” in the inscription. As the poet knew well, and made clear in other verses of the same poem, this is Wordsworth’s key phrase in Book 12 of The Prelude on The Imagination, How Impaired and Restored:
The days gone by
Return upon me almost from the dawn
Of life: the hiding-places of man’s power
Open; I would approach them, but they close.
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all…
Wordsworth’s belief and practice, and Montague’s, is that a person’s “first landscape” becomes lastingly associated with the growth of the imagination, and the discovery of life in its most natural forms, and those places retain their power, and can grant further understanding to the person as age comes on, not in the same strength as in the growing child, but still the glimpses give force even to the final thoughts of a person.
And it is remarkable that a dozen years before his actual death, John Montague envisioned the day on which he would be buried, declared his wishes for the manner of that burial, and plainly stated his final understanding of his life, and it is further remarkable that his Tyrone nephews and nieces, his spouses and daughters, carried out his wishes scrupulously.
As dinner ended, the son of Barney Horisk (who was a farmer, neighbour and father figure to the poet), passed around a “Christmas letter” John had written Barney over 30 years earlier, reminiscing about people and events along the Omagh Road. Old-timers gathered around to peer at the words, and nodded their heads as they read the mention of each name, with an occasional chuckle, or slow shake of demurral. One of those was Patsy Kelly, another solicitor, married to Aiden, the owner of Kelly’s Bar. He took out his glasses and had a careful look at the letter. Then he reminisced about how John would for many decades on his returns to Garvaghey stay with the Kellys at the Inn – they gave him a room for free – and he would settle in to meet at the bar all the locals for a good long gossip, flood of reminiscence, and sharing of stories, rhymes and songs.
Adrian Frazier is the author of Behind the Scenes: Yeats, Horniman, and the Abbey Theatre; George Moore 1852-1933; Hollywood Irish: John Ford, Abbey Actors, and the Irish Revival in Hollywood; John Behan: The Bull of Sheriff Street, and The Adulterous Muse: Maud Gonne, Lucien Millevoye & WB Yeats