John Montague

A Lost Tradition by John Montague

A Lost Tradition’ is a key poem of John Montague’s collection “The Rough Field”.  The poet argues that the people of Ireland (Irish) have lost the grasp on their history through no longer having the language that names the features of the landscape. He recollects the landscape of his past, of his childhood, as a manuscript which we have lost the skill to read. The poem argues that the ancient Gaelic language and culture represented is represented only by “the shards of a lost tradition.”

A Lost Tradition by John Montague


Summary of A Lost Tradition

The poem ‘A Lost Tradition’ deals with the poet’s reminiscence of the lost tradition of Ireland. He brings out the ways that prove that a tradition is lost.

The first stanza talks about the monuments and buildings being just as shards of the tradition once existed. He further explores that the tribes and the names given to the hills in the old Gaelic language are the other evidence of the tradition that is lost. He adds an incident from his childhood which proves that the language of the people is no more used. In the following stanza, he compares the city to a manuscript and the people to a blind man. Like the blind man depending on his fingertips, they also depend on the borrowed language for they have forgotten their language and their land.

The poet concludes by saying that the land which was once prided and protected by the powerful rulers has lost its true identity in the name of republic and civilization.


A Lost Tradition Analysis

Stanza One

All around, shards of a lost tradition:

( . . . )

The cairn of Carleton’s homesick poem.

The first stanza is the poet’s recollection of his ancestral homeland in Country Tyrone. ‘A Lost Tradition’ begins with the poet grieving that all he could see are the remnants, what is left to propagate the ‘lost tradition’. From ‘Rough Field’ to Hazels Glen to Golden Stone (a sacred ceremonial stone to the druids) – now known as ‘Cermand Cestach’, everything left are a few fragments from the historical past.  They are like memorial mounds kept in remembrance, similar to the poems of Will Charlton’s that remain as a stone mound of a rural America.


Stanza Two

Scattered over the hills, tribal-

( . . . )

Through an image-encrusted name.

The second stanza continues with his feelings over the remaining of his ‘lost tradition’ that is scattered over the ‘hills’ as the tribal’s who are unaffected with whatever the changes happened in the mainland and the unchanged place names. He compared the tribal’s to uncultivated pearls, for both are invaluable but do not shine as the polished ones do.

According to the poet no rocks or ruin or dun or dolmen (Dolmens of Ireland covered most of the megalithic monuments in Ireland, built by the settlers as a permanent mark on the physical landscape) are left to propagate the history or tradition existed. All that remains are the ‘image-encrusted’ names, the remains of the cruelty that takes off the memory away.


Stanza Three

The heathery gap where the Rapparee,

( . . . )

So breaks the heart, Brish-mo-Cree.

The third stanza talks about a Rapparee (a bandit or irregular soldier in Ireland in the 17th century) named Shane Barnagh Ernagh, a local legend of 17th century Ireland.  He is compared to Robin Hood for he also robbed from the rich, especially the English gentles and gave to the poor. Poet states that when his the place ‘Brish-mo-cree’ built-in memory of his brother’s death. The poet states that even the Sun has stained itself Crimson by seeing that heartbreaking act.


Stanza Four

The whole landscape a manuscript

( . . . )

Along the fingertips of instinct.

In the fourth stanza of ‘A Lost Tradition’, the poet further compares his land to a manuscript written in a language which is cannot be read by the people of the present. So they fumble through history like a blind man fumbles through words. Like a blind man relying on his fingertips, the people are relying on whatever is left of history. The poet refers to the Gaelic language which is not used anymore as a part of their disinherited past.


Stanza Five

The last Gaelic speaker in the parish

( . . . )

Tá an Ghaeilge againn arís . . .

The fifth stanza is about the poet’s memory of his childhood. He recollects an incident where he has uttered a few words that he learned in school and a Gaelic speaker praised him for that. Reference to learning the mother tongue in school which isn’t frequently used once again indicated the lost tradition the poet wants to highlight. The man recites a litany of praise in Gaelic ‘Tá an Ghaeilge again arís’ which means ‘We have the Irish again. The terms ‘last Gaelic speaker’, ‘rusty litany’ indicates that the language is no more used in the city.


Stanza Six

Tír Eoghain: Land of Owen,

( . . . )

To merge forces in Dun Geanainn

In the sixth stanza, the poet further goes back to history. ‘Eoghain’ refers to Ireland in history it refers to as a place of Yew tree. Tyrone was the land of Owen – a young soldier. The powerful chiefs of O’Niall clan ruled the land and built a fortress around the city.  The city was like the surface of the little fire from the Sun, which helped merge forces in the ‘Dun Geanainn fort’.


Stanza Seven

Push southward to Kinsale!

( . . . )

Founder in a Munster bog.

The seventh stanza is about the poet finding how the city was prided once for being a rival to Queen Elizabeth until it became a part of the forgotten land with war after war. Now, Ireland being a republic, became like a muddy wetland that couldn’t bear the weight of its rich history. As a result, it has lost almost all of its traditions.


Poetic Devices


‘A Lost Tradition’ is a poem of 35 lines, divided into seven stanzas. It is almost elegiac in style for the poet to lament over how the city has lost its rich heritage. They no more use their language; no monuments remain in the memory of its glories past; All that remains are shards of the past.



The poet uses a very serious and formal but not an angry tone, blended with nostalgia. ‘From the Rough Field I went to school’ and ‘When I stammered’ imply the past inside a past. From his experience, he travels back to its history and the lost tradition.


Use of Simile

The poet has used a lot of similes’ in the poem to make a comparison between the past and present. ‘The cairn of Carleton’s homesick poem’ refers to the remnants of his city are like the remnants of memory. As given in the poems of Will Carleton,  which deals with the history of America, A lot of Tradition also used to bring up a few new ideas/ history

In the second stanza, he addresses the tribal’s as the ‘uncultivated pears’ to mean that they are the pure remains of the tradition of Ireland. In the fifth stanza ‘A rusty litany of praise’ indicates that the words are used in a long time so it started forming rust like an unused iron. Here he means the ceased use of the language in day-to-day life.


About John Montague

John Montague was born in Brooklyn Ireland’s post-1916 national strife and had immigrated to the United States. In New York, the family struggled through the Great Depression. In 1933, four-year-old Montague and his two brothers went back to Ireland.  Montague grew up with his two aunts on the family farm. He received education at the seminary of Saint Patrick’s College in Armagh and attended the University College in Dublin. It is where he published his first poems.

Montague’s poems often find their shape in extended sequences that engage themes of travel and exile, national identity, and personal loss. Montague is the author of numerous collections of poetry. Montague taught at the University of Albany-SUNY and University College-Cork. He split his time between Cork and Nice until he died in 2016.

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Miz Alb Poetry Expert
Miz Alb received her MA in English Literature. Her thirst for literature makes her explore through the nuances of it. She loves reading and writing poetry. She teaches English Language and Literature to the ESL students of tertiary level.
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