The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Seamus Heaney in 1995 was greeted with enormous pleasure throughout Ireland and not least by both Arts Councils, each regarding him as their own, a distinguished northerner, resident in Dublin. There was a widespread feeling that this honour should be marked in some permanent way. That a small island such as Ireland with a population of five million people should have produced three previous Nobel Prize winners – W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett alongside James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and a chorus of eminent peers, was surely an extraordinary achievement necessary of celebration.
In early 1998, after much discussion and many meetings, the Ireland Chair of Poetry was set up in partnership between the two Arts Councils in Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, Queen’s University Belfast and University College Dublin. The Board sought suggestions from the public for the first holder of the post by way of newspaper advertisements and each of the five sponsoring institutions carefully considered suggestions and prepared a short list of nominees.
At a reception in the headquarters of the Arts Council in Belfast on 12th May 1998, it was announced that John Montague would be the first holder of the Chair. Sir Donnell Deeny QC, the then Chair of the Board of Trustees and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland at the time, also reported news of two private donations worth £20,000 from donors in Northern Ireland and of a donation of $100,000 from the United States via The Ireland Funds.