John Montague, Poet from the Land of Poets

The Irish poet John Montague died last weekend, with hardly a peep around here in the place where he was born, Brooklyn. It was Montague and Seamus Heaney, specifically their selections in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, that kept the poetic flame alive inside me during a long period of estrangement.

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Glass and video have replaced “the cage” on the Clark Street 2 & 3 Train stop, formerly the I.R.T., in Brooklyn Heights, where John Montague’s father worked.

His Irish Times obituary hinted, not surprisingly, that he regarded Heaney, the more successful, Nobel Laureate face of Irish poetry, as his rival. It added, also not surprisingly, that in his final years his jealousy lifted and he quoted Heaney’s poetry with fondness.

Among his works I revisit through the years are “The Trout” (Super homoerotic! I was surprised to learn he wasn’t gay.) and “The Cage.” Though born in Brooklyn, his mother got sick when he was young, and he was raised by relatives in Northern Ireland, while his father stayed here to work.

 

The Cage

My father, the least happy

man I have known. His face

retained the pallor

of those who work underground:

the lost years in Brooklyn

listening to a subway

shudder the earth.

 

But a traditional Irishman

who (released from his grille

in the Clark St. I.R.T)

drank neat whiskey until

he reached the only element

he felt at home in

any longer: brute oblivion.

 

And he picked himself

up, most mornings,

to march down the street

extending his smile

to all sides of the good

(non-negro) neighbourhood

belled by Teresa’s church.

 

When he came back

we walked together

across fields of Garvaghey

to see hawthorn on the summer

hedges, as though

he had never left;

a bend of the road

 

which still sheltered

primroses. But we

did not smile in

the shared complicity

of a dream, for when

weary Odysseus returns

Telemachus must leave.

 

Often as I descended

into subway or underground

I see his bald head behind

the bars of the small booth;

the mark of an old car

accident beating on his

ghostly forehead.

 

I confess to ruining the mood at a dinner party one night a few years ago, when the subject of poems about fathers came up and I broke this one out and read it. I’d remembered it as a sad story of a man who’d sacrificed his happiness for a job in a literal cage. The afterthought phrase “non-negro,” to me, testified to Montague’s great love for his father, whom he accepted faults and all, with no indication that his da’ didn’t share his neighborhood’s racism. The real-life “negroes” present at this particular get-together seemed a bit like a jab to the belly had been delivered, like they might have preferred a little warning for so hurtful a subject to come up, or at least a reprieve till dessert was finished.

My own love for Irish America is complicated by this very issue, our complicity in covering up the original sin of our country. It’s very American, really, that Montague appends this phrase to his poem at all, rendered in parentheses no less, as if he needs us to know where these people stood on the epoch-making issues of their day, and to discreetly take a position himself. (He and Seamus Heaney both lived in the U.S. for decades and became celebrities here, or at least paid the bills.)

This Christmas with my family, when the beer and wine are flowing, I plan to break out another of Montague’s poems, “The Silver Flask,” a country idyll about a family passing a flask of whiskey around the car. It begins:

“Sweet, though short, our

hours as a family together.

Driving across dark mountains

to Midnight Mass in Fivemiletown,

lights coming up in the valleys

as in the days of Carleton.

 

Tussocks of heather brown

in the headlights; our mother

stowed in the back, a tartan

rug wrapped around her knees,

patiently listening as father sang,

and the silver flask went round…”

Not exactly Christmas with The Waltons, neither my family nor Montague’s. He was a poet from the land of poets. I can understand young writers feeling like Montague and Heaney are both losing their relevance, their Irish heritage a kind of thesaurus of evocative images. They’re still special to me, though, and it goes beyond their Irish-ness. Even when they’re trading in nostalgia, they keep our eyes on sad details, then hint at some universal experience, then go back to the images to let them have the final word, and that, to me is what poetry is.

Saint Patty’s Day 2015: The “Irish Problem”

Expect a somber Saint Patrick’s Day at my local bar this Tuesday afternoon. Not that I’m not proud of “my people.” Nor am I a stranger to a pint of Guinness, and have drunk more than one for flimsier reasons.

And it’s not because I say “mine” in quotation marks. I am 25% Irish, via the grandparent who happened to give me my last name. I mentioned that I’m “not really Irish” to every native I got to know while attending the Galway Film Festival a few years ago, and without exception they all said something like “Stop it.” Meaning, that’s plenty Irish. As long as you show up with an open heart and good intentions, you are welcome home. It’s honestly easier sometimes to relate to the Irish than to Irish-Americans.

This year, I’ll drink to John Decker, an Irish-American hero I’ve been reading about in The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America, by Barnet Schecter. Decker was the chief engineer of the New York City Fire Department in 1863, when the city erupted in riots the day the U.S. government put the first-ever federal military draft into effect. He used persuasion, eloquence, and force to try stopping mobs from destroying innocent people’s property.

Nothing unexpected there, right? That’s what Irish New Yorkers do, support law and order, and fight fires. The early firehouses were often Irish gangs with some firefighting equipment, and the city police department was already an important source of  jobs for the Irish. So a guy like Decker would have been caught between the two worlds: the streetwise firefighters and the professional, mixed Irish and WASP administration.

The Colored Orphan Asylum, Midtown, July 13, 1863.

The Colored Orphan Asylum, Midtown, July 13, 1863.

But here’s the rub: The mob Decker was fighting was overwhelmingly Irish. The WASP leadership of the city talked openly about the “Irish problem,” and considered us a different race. According to The Devil’s Own Work, when the Civil War broke out, we signed up in huge numbers to stop the rebellion. It was a means of becoming more American. In 1863, though, Lincoln deftly changed the objective of the war from putting down a rebellion to ending slavery, and we were less enthusiastic, to say the least.

True enough, the draft at the time was unfair: A rich person could get out of it by paying $300. That’s why the first targets of the Irish rioters, after the draft offices, were the houses of rich New Yorkers known to be supporters of Lincoln. It took only half a day, though, to start attacking abolitionists in general and successful African-American businesses, a seamless transition that made perfect sense to many of us.

By four o’clock that afternoon, a mob gathered in front of the Colored Orphan Asylum on 43rd Street. That’s when Decker showed up at the front door with only a dozen men, presumably Irish too, and two firehoses, and stared the mob down long enough for the staff and 230 Black children to walk out the back door to look for a police station that would take them in.

One relevant, and very ironic, detail is that the party of Lincoln and Seward had taken over the New York state government a few years before, and was so annoyed with the city police department that it replaced it with its own police force, called the Metropolitans. So New York had just undergone community policing in reverse, and the Irish ghettos went nuts.

As the orphans fled, according to the orphanage’s founder Anna Shotwell, the mob was taunting them, until an anonymous Irishman spoke up and pleaded for pity. The mob, according to Shotwell, “laid hold of him, and appeared ready to tear him to pieces” as she led the kids away, though it’s not clear if this is figurative or literal.

Back at the main entrance, Decker fought the mob, and the mob won. Plundered the furniture. Burnt the orphanage to the ground. That evening and the next day, there were lynchings in New York City as gruesome as the worst atrocities of the K.K.K.

Let me rephrase that. Not, “There were lynchings.” “We lynched.”

A major through-line in the story of our community is racism, and hostility to Black people in particular, and any Irish-American who doesn’t admit this isn’t being honest. Stepping up for material fairness for ourselves, and confusing that with stopping “the negro” from getting something that’s rightfully ours, is one thing we do.

NYPD officers (most of them) turning their backs on the mayor at a police funeral.

NYPD officers (most of them) turning their backs on the mayor at a police funeral.

The recent political fights between the NYPD leadership and the civilian government of New York is just the latest skirmish. “Worst mayor ever!” the crowd chanted at Mayor DeBlasio at the Rockaways Saint Patrick’s Day Parade last weekend. I can only imagine what Blaz feels about the big parade on Tuesday.

Patrick Lynch (his real name) of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association can willfully misunderstand the reasonable things DeBlasio has said about race, and the bit of fairness he’s tried to restore to Black New York, which, in the eyes of the Irish, must suffer collective punishment forever for every crime committed by every fool during the bad, bad days of crack. And he can count on the New York Post and Fox News to back him up every day.  The anti-Lincoln and Irish-American papers during the draft riots blamed the atrocities on the abolitionists. If only they hadn’t provoked the mob by trying to free the slaves… In this mindset, it’s always the African-Americans and the liberals who cause racism. It’s never the police, and never the Irish.

Bill O’Reilly’s parents are 100% Irish, a New York City boy who moved to Long Island when he was two. Hannity is also 100%, also born in New York, and also grew up on Long Island. Like the Italian-Americans on the Supreme Court, I imagine they have, deep inside, a phobia of being found out. Scalia and Alito are Trenton Italians who will always be haunted by the “dago” thing, who will never have the effortless class of a Princeton housewife, at least not in their own minds, no matter how many Ivy League degrees they have, and whose path to claiming a hunk of the Republic is to fetishize the intentions of the long-dead planter class that wrote the Constitution. And like Martha Stewart, the Pole from New Jersey who taught a generation to be more WASP-y, O’Reilly and Hannity have the zeal of the converted, to uber-Americanness, that is.

The Eric Garner-Patrick Lynch-Mayor DeBlasio story has created a “Which side are you on?” moment for white New Yorkers. White millennial and middle-aged people who migrated here after college have had a privileged relationship with the old school whites such as the Irish and Italians, up to now. Some of us are even known to say things like, “I love my Polish neighborhood!” as if a neighborhood is a gym membership and we just had a euphoric spin class. We may sometimes get the uncomfortable sense that we are more welcome as tenants and patrons of their establishments than some certain natives are, but we try not to dwell on it. It’s hard finding an apartment or an affordable, quiet place to drink a beer, so why rock the boat? The longer the P.B.A.-DeBlasio feud lasts, the more times we’re asked potentially friendship-ending questions about our sympathies.

McSorley's

The sidewalk outside of McSorley’s Old Ale House has a charmingly homespun inscription that reads, “Please help us keep our neighborhood in order.” You could call it cuteness, like a sign that reads “Clean Rooms 5¢.” After reading The Devil’s Own Work, though, it feels sinister, like it  reveals something about the Irish-American hard-wiring. Each of us is both thug and self-deputized officer of the law, ready to help keep the order at any time, and “order,” then as now, is an elusive concept.

Groups are always more than the sum of their parts, and there’s something magic about groups of Irish-Americans. We’re good craic, as they say back home. But there are devils in our hearts too. That’s why this Saint Patty’s Day I’ll be toasting to John Decker, and to the unnamed Irishman who spoke up for the Colored Orphans and paid the price. To the ones who got what Lincoln meant by “the better angels of our nature.”