Montgomery, Niall (Thomas Neil) (1915–87), architect, poet, literary critic, and artist, was born 24 June 1915 in a nursing home at 54 Upper Mount Street, Dublin, elder son among two sons and one daughter of James Montgomery (qv), an engineer who later became Ireland's first official film censor, and Ethel Montgomery (née Conroy); he had a half-sister by his father's first marriage. Reared in the family home at Wellington Lodge, 132 Rock Road, Booterstown, Co. Dublin, he was educated at the Irish college, Ring, Co. Waterford, Belvedere College, Dublin, and UCD, graduating in architecture in 1938. He formed a close lifelong friendship with fellow UCD student Brian O'Nolan (qv) (‘Flann O'Brien’; ‘Myles na Gopaleen’), and remembered how O'Nolan descended on UCD ‘like a shower of paratroopers, deploying a myriad of pseudonymous personalities in the interests of pure destruction’ (Ir. Times, 2 Apr. 1966). The pair collaborated on literary and journalistic projects, and generated sham controversies by writing argumentative pseudonymous letters to the Irish Times (1939–40). An enthusiast for the modernist movement in art and literature, Montgomery was an intellectual mentor to O'Nolan, influencing his ideas about literature, especially the works of James Joyce (qv). Another student friend, Niall Sheridan (qv), remembered Montgomery's conversation as being ‘sometimes so elliptical and recondite that he seemed to be telling jokes to himself’ (Cronin, 55). Montgomery appears as ‘Kerrigan’ in O'Nolan's novel At swim-two-birds (1939). He sub-wrote O'Nolan's satiric ‘Cruiskeen lawn’ column in the Irish Times on occasions when O'Nolan was indisposed, especially during the latter's last years of illness and alcoholism. He eulogised O'Nolan as ‘an Aristophanic sorcerer’ (Ir. Times, 2 Apr. 1966). Montgomery also cultivated friendships with writer Samuel Beckett (qv) and painter Jack B. Yeats (qv).
Employed as an architect by the OPW, Montgomery worked under Desmond FitzGerald (qv) (1911–87) on the design of the airport terminal building, Collinstown, Co. Dublin. Establishing a private practice (1946), with offices at 27 Merrion Square, he engaged in home, industrial, commercial, and hotel design. In 1948 he remodelled the Red Bank restaurant, D'Olier St., Dublin, an establishment with Joycean associations. Foremost among his many projects in the field of restoration was the conversion of the eighteenth-century stables and coach houses of Ormond castle, Kilkenny city, into the Kilkenny Design Workshops (1963–5), for which he was awarded one of the first three silver medals for conservation of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), covering the years 1946–76. Ardently committed to the preservation of Dublin's Georgian architectural heritage, which he celebrated rhapsodically, he was a pungent critic of the demolition of historic buildings in the city, often in ironically caustic terms. He served an unprecedented tenure of thirty-one consecutive years on the RIAI council (1952–82), and was the body's president (1976–7). He chaired the national building specifications committee of An Foras Forbartha, and wrote many papers and articles on technical matters.
A painter and sculptor, Montgomery exhibited at the modernist Irish Exhibition of Living Art, where representative pieces included ‘The half moon’ (1958), ‘Dublin 4’ (1964), and ‘Winter disconnecticut’ (1971), and where he was awarded a Carroll's award for ‘The high contracting parties’ (1973), an audio-visual work comprising film, slides, sounds, and voices. His sculpture ‘Traffic symbol’ (c.1975) is in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. His one-person show at the Peacock theatre (1980) included seventy-five works grouped in four categories: inventions–various, drawings–topic, drawings–somatic, and etchings. He designed a memorial to Irish merchant seamen who died at sea during the 1939–45 emergency, which was erected posthumously on City Quay, Dublin (1990).
Montgomery published poems and literary criticism in newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and literary and academic journals in Ireland and America. He commanded a particular interest and expertise in the works of Joyce, which he was one of the earliest Irish critics to champion. Examples of his Joycean criticism are ‘Joyeux quicum Ulysse’ (Envoy, v, no. 17 (April 1951), 31–43) and ‘The pervigilium phœnicis’ (New Mexico Quarterly, xxiii, no. 4 (winter 1953), 437–72). Mocking academic critiques, he interpreted Joyce as fundamentally a catholic writer, an Irish Dante, a seer not a thinker, who affirmed rather than sought truth, and disdained to write a conventional ‘serious novel of spiritual growth and sexual decay’; Joyce's style, in its suppression of the authorial voice, and fun-filled, punning wordplay, represented an assault on the liberal, empirical rationalism that underlies ‘academic machinery’ and ‘Protestant civilisation’. Montgomery lectured on literature and architecture, and published critical essays on Proust and Beckett, an example of the latter being ‘No symbols where none intended’ (New World Writing: fifth Mentor selection (1954), 324–37). His essays abound with portmanteau constructions, bilingual puns, and wry allusions, evincing what one editor called his ‘whimsical erudition’ (Lace Curtain (1970), 55).
Montgomery's poetry is deliberately modernist, with surrealist elements. He also wrote plays, which were rarely performed. Diffident about his poetic talent, he published rarely, often only after persistent siege by editors and enthusiasts. Fluent in French, Irish, and Latin, he translated French symbolist poetry. During his student years he collaborated with Denis Devlin (qv) on an ambitious project to translate nineteenth-century French poetry into Irish, little of which was accomplished. He was noted for spellbinding public readings of his poetry, sometimes in multi-media, employing music, chant, and visual images to accompany his own arresting vocal performance. He published poems and essays in the Lace Curtain (1969–78), literary journal of New Writers’ Press, founded by Michael Smith (qv) and Trevor Joyce, and prepared for the press a collection of his poetry entitled ‘Terminal’, which remains unpublished.
Montgomery was a small, slim man, dapper in dress and grooming, with a carefully trimmed moustache. The staid appearance belied the startling, avant-garde modernism of his literary and artistic persona. Witty, courteous, and modest, he was notably generous in extending encouragement and assistance (both artistic and material) to fellow writers and artists. A member of the United Arts Club, he served on the Arts Council (1956–9), the cultural relations committee of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the National Monuments Advisory Council. He married (1939) Roseanna (‘Hop’) Hopkins (d. 1995); they had three daughters and one son, and resided at 3 Warwick Terrace, Sallymount Avenue, Ranelagh, Dublin. He died 11 March 1987 after a short illness in the Adelaide hospital, Dublin.