‘Death of a Chieftain’

‘A Love Present and Other Stories’ by John Montague,

I have a particular reverence for any story that can move me to tears – melancholy always appeals to me – and I found myself quietly choking when in ‘The Last Three Things’ a dying woman I had met just ten minutes previously passes away. Over the sustained length of a novel it takes considerable skill to get a reader emotionally involved. To achieve that response in a matter of pages is an indication of John Montague’s creative powers.

Something can happen when a gifted poet turns to prose – the hybrid is almost a genre in itself (thinking here of another example – the rhythm in Deane’s ‘Reading in the Dark’). Or what about this example of synaesthesia: “the pine plantation cast an aromatic shadow.” Or an old bachelor farmer, alone with his two sisters, “strangled by his situation.” Or kids climbing into “the mouldering mystery of a deserted house.”

The earliest story in these collections, ‘The Limits of Innocence’, is from forty six years ago; the most recent, the one that had me in tears, is from 1997. Many are about a character as a boy, an adolescent, a young man. A boy born in Brooklyn, whose father (whom he can’t remember) sent him back to Tyrone during the Depression, whose mother is dead, who grows up with two maidenly aunts, who aspires to shake off the crushing effects of sectarianism, religion and parochialism and become a cosmopolitan, a great poet. Yes, that closely follows the graph of Montague’s life but it is an unreliable source for facts (as opposed to truths) and to read this as autobiography is to overread.

What can be determined, however, is the man’s humanity and compassion, his grasp of human nature. And it is that, and the variety of characters and contexts which he convincingly portrays that makes Montague also a great writer. A young French woman experiences narrow-minded Ireland. A married German couple maintain their atheism in a close-knit rural community. A Northern Irish Protestant, an archaeologist, goes slowly mad in Mexico as he tries to prove that the Celts founded America.

The rural element is strong: life on the land revolving around the seasons; native Catholic resentment at historic dispossession; mart day and drunk farmers; an outing to the county town being a big day in itself. At the heart of many of the stories is a character in quest, and many of the first-person narratives are evocative little reminders of what we’ve all been through: fear at school and bullying; escapism into bigger worlds through literature; fumbling, adolescent courting; the confusion between sex and love; estrangement; the gamut of the adventure that is life …which always ends in death. At the wake of their sister a young boy “saw his aunts sitting in a sad row, like hens sheltering from the rain, their eyes glazed with memory.”

Montague sympathises with people – not causes. In ‘Off the Page’ the main character, a lecturer up from Dublin, during his address to students criticises the IRA for bombing the city centre, destroying its own “childhood memories”. Afterwards, he is intimidated by a former school friend, a republican, who accuses him of being ‘sentimental’. He mulls over their conversation, doesn’t think that he himself could be as venomous as his friend if he “lived in this taut climate”, but then admits to himself that he can’t be sure.

In ‘The Cry’, written in 1963, Peter, who is a reporter in England, is visiting his parents’ home in Tyrone when during the night he hears a youth being beaten up outside by the B-Specials. The villagers are afraid to intervene. The following day, his father, an old republican, urges him to write about it; however, his mother, a quiescent Catholic, is opposed to the idea and remarks that after he leaves “we have to live with them”. The parents of the abused youth are also opposed to him writing a story and the youth himself says he can’t help him.

“Whatever redress Peter could offer, whatever hope or help would mean nothing compared to their unspecified but real threats. He would never know the truth of the incident now: whether the boy had connections with the IRA, whether he had provoked the police; whether even, his – Peter’s – interpretation of their silence was correct. Between their helplessness and his freedom lay an unbridgeable gulf…”

Montague seems to suggest that sex is the rebellious profundity that lies between life and death. In ‘Pilgrim’s Pad’ a young, starving Irish poet in 1950s Florence falls in with a dynamic young American woman, an amateur painter, who ferociously introduces him to the erotic arts. He is mesmerised, obsessed, confused and guilt-ridden. Their hot relationship – “brutal rhythms of aggression and affection” – lasts but a month – or a lifetime if one adds the ever-flowing font of memory. Deep down inside her he knows there is a great hurt and when he discovers it he becomes, in a sense, master. But “I was already bruised enough almost to look forward to a period of loneliness.”

And then his train draws out of the station.
“Little white flowers
Will never waken you;
Not when the black coach
of Death has taken you.”