A Lost Tradition

© By John Montague

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All around, shards of a lost tradition:
From the Rough Field I went to school
In the Glen of the Hazels. Close by
Was the bishopric of the Golden Stone;
The cairn of Carleton’s homesick poem.

Scattered over the hills, tribal
And place-names, uncultivated pearls.
No rock or ruin, dun or dolmen
But showed memory defying cruelty
Through an image-encrusted name.

The heathery gap where the Rapparee,
Shane Barnagh, saw his brother die –
On a summer’s day the dying sun
Satined its colours to crimson:
So breaks the heart, Brish-mo-Cree.

The whole landscape a manuscript
We had lost the skill to read,
A part of our past disinherited;
But fumbled, like a blind man,
Along the fingertips of instinct.

The last Gaelic speaker in the parish
When I stammered my school Irish
One Sunday after mass, crinkled
A rusty litany of phrase:
Tá an Ghaedilg againn arís …

Tír Eoghain: Land of Owen,
Province of the O’Niall;
The ghostly tread of O’Hagan’s
Barefoot gallowglasses marching
To merge forces in Dun Geanainn

Push southward to Kinsale!
Loudly the war-cry is swallowed
In swirls of black rain and fog
As Ulster’s pride, Elizabeth’s foemen,
Founder in a Munster bog.

© John Montague, complete text, from A Severed Head, Section IV of The Rough Field 1972, The Gallery Press

John Montague’s poem argues that we have lost a grasp on our history through no longer having the language that names the features of the landscape.

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