President says Montague death ‘another great loss to Irish letters’

Higgins heard news ‘with sorrow’, describing him as ‘one of our finest poets’

John Montague who has died at the age of 87

John Montague who has died at the age of 87


The President Michael D Higgins has led tributes to the poet, John Montague, who has died in France, aged 87. He died early on Saturday morning in the Clinique Parc Impérial in Nice.

The President said he had heard the news “with sorrow”, describing him as “one of our finest poets”.

Montague was one of Ireland’s foremost contemporary poets and taught and lectured in Ireland, France and the United States. He was the first Ireland Professor of Poetry from 1998 to 2001 and just recently honoured at the Irish Book Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to literature.

He had undergone major surgery to removing knotting in his colon. His widow, the American novelist Elizabeth Wassell, said he was “recovering nicely” until December 9th, when he came down with fever and began to decline. Montague’s daughters, Oonagh and Sibyl Montague, flew to Nice from Cork and Dublin respectively.

Nurses at the clinic extended visiting hours for Wassell. “On Thursday night we were sitting so closely. We were both lonely when we were apart,” Wassell said. “I suggested to John that it was a second courtship for us. He smiled warmly.”

Doctors put Montague on a respirator and life support system on Friday. He was semi-conscious. Wassell and Sibyl were called to the clinic at 1am on Saturday. “The French don’t understand the concept of a wake, but they let us stay with him longer than usual,” Wassell said.

Montague was born in Brooklyn in 1929 and was sent to live with spinster aunts in Tyrone at the age of four. In the poem A Flowering Absence he wrote “how a mother gave her away her son”.

Montague spent the rest of his life between Ireland, the US and France. Since 1998, Montague and Wassell had divided their time between their farmhouse in West Cork and an apartment near the train station in Nice. They married at the town hall in Nice in 2005.

He co-founded Claddagh Records, and became president of Poetry Ireland in 1979. He had taught at University College Dublin, University College Cork and the Sorbonne. He had also lectured at several American universities, and served as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the New York State Writers Institute.

His poetry included Forms of Exile (1958), Poisoned Lands (1961), A Chosen Light (1967), Tides (1970), and The Rough Field (1972), which was performed with music by the Chieftains at the Roundhouse in London and the Peacock Theatre in Dublin.

Other collections included A Slow Dance (1975); The Great Cloak (1978); The Dead Kingdom (1984); Mount Eagle (1988); The Love Poems (1992); Time in Armagh (1993); Collected Poems (1995); Smashing the Piano (1999); Carnac - a translation of work by the French poet Guillevic (1999); Drunken Sailor (2001); Speech Lessons (2011) and New Collected Poems(2012).

The Lost Notebook, a novella set in Florence, won the first Hughes Award in 1987.

In 2000, he wrote a memoir, Company, and in 2007 he produced a second volume of memoirs, The Pear is Ripe.

He published three story collections: Death of a Chieftain (1964), An Occasion of Sin (1992) and A Love Present (1997).

He won the Marten Toonder Award in 1977, a Guggenheim fellowship in 1980, and the Ireland Funds Literary Award in 1995.

President Higgins said his death represented, “another great loss to Irish letters, a further break with a rich body of work that was the gift of poets and dramatists, to Ulster, Ireland and the world.

“All of the themes of the last century are engaged in John Montague’s work - separation, exile, memory, conflict, the making and teaching of poems in academic settings far and wide, and the challenge of their delivery, generously undertaken in a myriad of settlings.

“His work, which includes magnificent love poems and which indeed show a love of the world in all its curiosity, was immense.

“John Montague produced a body of work that was recognised by his peers as of the finest kind - lines hewn out of experience as if granite, nothing avoided or evaded, and this writing went on to the end,” said the President.

Sheila Pratschke, Chair of the Arts Council said: “A true giant of Irish letters, John Montague possessed a voice and vision which was wholly unique and deeply needed, at once intensely relevant and local, while also embracing and celebrating the cosmopolitan. His loss will be felt acutely but his work will continue to inspire both readers and writers for generations to come.”

The Aosdána also paid tribute to the poet, saying “it is only with his death that Ireland can truly appreciate the historic achievements of John Montague, a founder member of Aosdána.”

“As a Northern Catholic from the complicated territory of Tyrone he spoke truth and peace to his Protestant neighbours; he was a significant Irish-American, with roots in New York; he was Yeatsian in the glory of his friends, like Samuel Beckett.”

The statement said he was an inspirational teacher to young writers, particularly in Cork, while writer Thomas McCarthy said his poetry is “an expansive fluency and national grandeur… a splendid, exceptional integrity: it ebbs and flows and shimmers like the tide.”