Within ‘The Errigal Road’ Montague delves into themes of Irish myth/legend, community, and heritage. The poem takes the reader through an engaging landscape that represents the similarities and deeper connections between all Irish people, Protestant or Catholic.
The poem takes the reader through a series of landmarks around Hill Head Road in Northern Ireland. The speaker and his neighbour are exploring the landscape. Montague’s speaker depicts the land’s history, and the neighbour explains stories and legends that they both can relate to and appreciate. As the walk comes to an end the neighbour asks that the speaker remember the clear-headed conversation they had and tell others that it’s possible.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Poetic Techniques
‘The Errigal Road’ by John Montague is a thirteen stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These terces do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, nor do they conform to one metrical pattern.
Montague makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Errigal Road’ these include alliteration, enjambment, and similes. The latter, similes, are a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, in the second line of the fifth stanza in which the speaker describes the movement of a red quarry as “a movement swift as a bird’s”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza or the transition between lines two and three of stanza six.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, these lines in stanza ten “Heavily booted soldiers probing vehicles, streets, / their strange antennae bristling, like insects.”
Stanzas One and Two
In the first stanzas of ‘The Errigal Road,’ the speaker begins by describing a walk he took with his “old Protestant neighbour” up along the “Hill Head Road” in Ulster, Northern Ireland. While walking, they passed a number of sights that his companion helped point out. There was the churchyard of Errigal Keerogue and various hills and valleys “celebrated in local myth”. The neighbour knew these paths well. In fact, the speaker refers to them as belonging to the neighbour.
Stanzas Three and Four
Next, the neighbour points out “Whiskey Hollow” which is a line of white “lunar birches”. While walking, the two take their time imagining the plotting of men hiding out in amongst the hills and feeding fires to keep warm.
Stanza Five and Six
The neighbour also mentions “Foxhole Brae” that can be found in the “torn face of a quarry”. The “them” the neighbour refers to in the third line of the fifth stanza is foxes. They used to live everywhere, but now there are barely any. One appears in the sixth stanza. The red fox is generally regarded as a symbol of the Irish peasant, or as Potts states in Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition, for general Irish resourcefulness under colonization. It is quick on its feet and able to disappear and melt like rain.
Stanza Seven and Eight
The next stanzas of ‘The Errigal Road’ depict “Fairy Thorn Height”. From there they can see more of the countryside. This place is a mythological landmark that helps the two see beyond their current differences. Catholics and Protestants can together understand the world through their common Irish Heritage.
Stanza Nine and Ten
The two expand their conversation into the wider violence that’s going on around them. They think about a “gun battle outside Aughnacloy” and the machine-gun fire that rang out. There is also the story of “two men beaten up near dark Altamuskin”. The last event they talk about is “an attempt to blow up Omagh Courthouse”. This is a reference to a ca bombing in August of 1998 at the courthouse. It was prefaced by a telephone call warning: “There’s a bomb, courthouse, Omagh, main street, 500lb, explosion 30 minutes”.
Stanza Eleven and Twelve
The next lines address the chaos after the call came in. The military response is compared to insect swarms. The helicopters were like “hovering locusts” and the soldiers on the street “like insects”. These are compelling similes and paint an easy to understand image of the scene.
The twelfth stanza of ‘The Errigal Road’ is back to describing the neighbour again. Here, he turns to address the speaker. He makes a broad statement that is simple, yet very meaningful. He asks that the speaker pass on the fact that “old neighbours” no matter their differences can “still speak to each other around here”. This persevering sense of community in amongst violence and hate is the main theme of this work. The two are connected by something deeper than religious affiliation.
Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen
In the last two stanzas of ‘The Errigal Road,’ the speaker describes how the neighbour said goodbye and then the speaker went on his way. He trailed back down the “main road” where he is back in the real, contemporary world. His adventures into the past are over and all of a sudden there are “cars” whipping “smartly past” him.
The last lines express his concern for the future and allude to his desire for a continuation of the neighbourly talk/walk he just went on. If only this kind of calm and clear-headed communication could occur between all those who fight around him.