Widow and friends of poet John Montague mark his 90th birthday

Pierre Joannon praises Montague’s ‘extraordinary dedication to his craft’

The widow and friends of John Montague gathered at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco on Thursday night to celebrate the Irish poet on what would have been his 90th birthday.

Montague died in Nice on December 10th, 2016. About 30 people attended the ceremony, during which Montague’s poems were read by the novelist Elizabeth Wassell Montague, the poet’s widow, and friends including the artist Fiona Keane, who lives in Nice, and the novelist Evelyn Conlon.

The traditional musician Fintan Vallely closed the evening with a rendition of The Wounded Huzzar on the flute.

Pierre Joannon, Ireland’s Consul General in the south of France and a leading French historian of Ireland, praised Montague’s “warm personality, acute sense of humour and extraordinary dedication to his craft.” Not only was Montague “the quintessential Irish poet,” Joannon said, he was “the most loveable person, the most perfect friend, a real gentleman.”


Before reading Montague’s autobiographical poem A Flowering Absence, Elizabeth Wassell Montague noted that her husband’s poems “are full of loss and heartbrokenness, but they are also full of love restored, of the heart replenished, of grace affirmed.”

The opening line, “How can one make an absence flower, lure a desert to sudden bloom?” seemed to conjure up the attempt to bring Montague back to life, if only for an evening. Because Montague stammered as a child, Wassell noted, “each time he appeared before an expectant audience, he struggled to speak, and was afraid that he might falter.” He sometimes avoided reading his most powerful, emotional poems. A Flowering Absence ends with Montague’s redemption through art.

“My tongue became a rusted hinge/until the sweet oils of poetry/eased it and grace flooded in.” With the help of Geneviève Chevallier, professor of literature at Nice University, Wassell is editing French Leaves, Montague’s translations of French poems into English, to be published by The Gallery Press. Chevallier was among the guests on Thursday night. Montague had often visited the Princess Grace Irish Library.

He began a lecture there in November 2007 by describing his childhood in Armagh. The boys in his school worked hard “because we wanted to prove that little Catholic boys could be just as bright as little Protestant boys,” he said.

The Library published a 12-page booklet filled with photographs and written tributes to Montague. “It is quite extraordinary to think that we had the likes of Kavanagh, McNiece, Montague, Kinsella, Heaney and Boland, to name a few, all living and working in that same golden era” of the mid-20th century, the novelist Christine Dwyer O’Hickey wrote. “In times like these we need our poets, to put the quotidian matters of politics in context and to give us hope,” wrote Patricia O’Brien, Ireland’s ambassador to France.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor