An Irishwoman’s Diary on architect, poet, artist and literary critic Niall Montgomery
Centenary of the birth of a true pioneer
Niall Montgomery’s first love was literature. He counted among his friends Brian O’Nolan, Denis Devlin, Niall Sheridan, Donagh MacDonagh, Cyril Cusack and Samuel Beckett.
June 2015 is the centenary of Niall Montgomery, architect, poet, artist and literary critic – a truly remarkable Irishman.
Born in Dublin he attended school at the Irish College in Ring, Co Waterford, and Belvedere College, Dublin. At home he grew up in a stimulating environment. His father was James Montgomery, a friend of Eoin MacNeill, Yeats, Synge, Gogarty, CP Curran and Arthur Griffith, with whom he had been in London during the Treaty negotiations.
James, renowned for his wit, was the Free State’s first film censor who famously announced on his appointment in 1923 that he was “between the devil and the Holy See”, adding that his job was “to prevent the Californication of Ireland”.
Niall Montgomery graduated in architecture from UCD in 1938 and in his first employment was associated with Desmond FitzGerald in the design of the airport buildings at Collinstown.
From 1946 Montgomery worked as an architect in private practice in Dublin, in partnership with his son James from 1974. Among his best-known works are the conversion of the Ormonde Castle stables to house the Kilkenny Design Centre (1963), a project for which he was awarded the Conservation Medal of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, and the conversion of Kilkea Castle for use as a hotel (1966). He was passionately interested in Dublin, and in an era when significant historic buildings were destroyed by both developers and the government, he lectured, wrote and appeared on television campaigning for preservation and restoration.
A true pioneer, Montgomery was one of the first in this country to promote through scholarship the idea of conservation.
From 1951 he served on the Council of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland for an unprecedented 31 consecutive years and was one of the founders of the Irish Architectural Archive.
Outside his profession, Niall Montgomery had considerable artistic talent, showing paintings, drawings and installations at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in six shows between 1964 and 1978 and winning first prize in 1973 for an audio-visual presentation. An example of his kinetic art was given on loan to the Hugh Lane Gallery in 1975. He also had a one-man exhibition of paintings and drawings in the Peacock Theatre in Dublin in 1972 and another at the same venue in 1980 entitled “Niall Montgomery: Etchings, Drawings, Inventions” that included 75 works.
He was at various times a member of the National Monuments Advisory Council, the Arts Council and the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Montgomery’s first love, however, was literature. At college he befriended Brian O’Nolan, Denis Devlin, Niall Sheridan, Donagh MacDonagh, Cyril Cusack and Charlie Donnelly. Together they ran the Literary and Historical Society and the Dramatic Society. His lifelong friendship with Samuel Beckett also began around this time. Throughout his life Montgomery wrote verse, plays and criticism. His poems were published in magazines and anthologies, notably in transition, the magazine in which portions of Finnegans Wake appeared from time to time, and in Irish Poetry: The Thirties Generation.
Montgomery was among the first in Ireland to approach critically the works of James Joyce, and he became an acknowledged authority. The Dublin magazine Envoy printed his study “Joyeux Quicum Ulysse” in 1951, and in 1953 the New Mexico Quarterly published his long and detailed examination of aspects of Finnegans Wake called “The Pervigilium Phoenicis”. That work prompted his friend Flann O’Brien to comment in this newspaper: “It may be taken that Finnegans Wake is a gloss on this article. One sees Joyce’s work in a gloss, darkly. The two works nourish and explain each another. Each should be in the home of every right-thinking Irishman.”
An assessment of Samuel Beckett’s works entitled “No Symbols Where None Intended” was, with Beckett’s approval, published in the New York magazine New World Writing in 1954 and effectively introduced the future Nobel laureate to American audiences. An essay comparing the work of Marcel Proust and James Joyce appeared in the Dubliner magazine in 1962.
Over the years he contributed book reviews and obituaries of literary figures to The Irish Times and, on a lighter note, often wrote the satirical “Cruiskeen Lawn” for Brian O’Nolan. Throughout 1964, in the same paper, he had his own column entitled “The Liberties” under the pseudonym Rosemary Lane.
Montgomery’s literary and personal papers are in the National Library of Ireland; his architectural papers are lodged at the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland. A book collecting the best of his writing on the architecture of Dublin, on James Joyce and Samuel Beckett will be published later this year.
Niall Montgomery was married to Roisin Hopkins, and they had four children, Rose Mary, Susan, Ruth and James. He died in Dublin in 1987, after a short illness.