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Poem introduction

I sometimes have a stammer, and in a grandiose fashion I associated that with the change of languages in Ireland in the 19th century from the old Gaelic into English. It's not sufficiently understood that Ireland went through a trauma in the 1840s and '50s - there were at least two or three famines, and between that and emigration population was almost halved. In 1840, there were eight million Irish, and I think fourteen million English; at the end of the 1840s into the 1850s there were only four and a half, and those who remained would have to learn English. And the process is described in this poem, which I discovered was also what happened in Okinawa when the Japanese took over and compelled the inhabitants to learn Japanese.

A Grafted Tongue


bloodied, the severed
head now chokes to
speak another tongue -

As in
a long suppressed dream,
some stuttering garb-
led ordeal of my own)

An Irish
child weeps at school
repeating its English.
After each mistake

The master
gouges another mark
on the tally stick
hung about its neck

Like a bell
on a cow, a hobble
on a straying goat.
To slur and stumble

In shame
the altered syllable
of your own name:
to stray sadly home

And find
the turf-cured width
of your parents' hearth
growing slowly alien:

In cabin
and field, they still
speak the old tongue.
You may greet no one.

To grow
a second tongue, as
harsh a humiliation
as twice to be born.

Decades later
that child's grandchild's
speech stumbles over
syllables of an old order.

from Collected Poems (Gallery Press, 1995) © John Montague 1995, used by permission of the author and The Gallery Press.


John Montague

John Montague Reading from his Poems

1Like Dolmens Round my Childhood, the Old People

2Woodtown Manor

3The Trout

4All Legendary Obstacles

5That Room

6The Same Gesture

7Omagh Hospital

8The Water Carrier

9A Bright Day

10A Grafted Tongue


12Courtyard in Winter

13No Music

14Last of the House

15Herbert Street Revisited

16Grave Song

17Last Journey

18A Response to Omagh


20There are Days

20The Family Piano



Books by John Montague