Nestled neatly in between the tiny community of islands which make up the archipelago of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean Sea sits Montserrat, a little island fondly referred to as the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean.” This tiny enclave in the West Indies casts quite a large shadow when people learn of her unique and little known Irish history. Made up of a majority of Afro Caribbean descendants of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, it is the last place one would expect to see locals celebrating all things Hibernian. But it is here that on March 17, the island’s Irish descendants commemorate the Feast Day of St. Patrick while the descendants of the African slaves celebrate Liberation Day- honoring their ancestor’s noble grasp for freedom on that very day in 1768.

MontserratThe unassuming island nation of Montserrat literally burst into global consciousness when her long-dormant volcano, Soufriere Hills, awakened in the summer months of 1995. Soufriere Hills is nothing like the lava spewing Hawaiian style

Visitors to the island are welcomed with the stamp of a green shamrock in their passports at immigration. The shamrock is the most
recognizable Irish national emblem
shared by both.

volcanoes, which we often see on the Discovery Channel. Instead, she is an ash volcano that emits superheated gas and pulverized rock called pyroclastic flows- that travel down her slopes at high velocity. Her once 12,000-strong local population emigrated to all points on the compass. But the stalwart locals who, defantly refused to abandon “The Rock”, have sustained and successfully weathered the geological, social, cultural and economical upheavals that this cataclysmic event has wrought over the past two decades.

The “Emerald Isle’s” long and storied history with Ireland began when Irish Catholics, under the leadership of Anthony Brisket, landed on the northernmost section of Montserrat from the neighboring island of St. Kitts fleeing religious persecution from Reformation Era Europe. Irish Catholics initially took sanctuary in St. Kitts under the protection of the French Crown, as French Catholics had already settled portions of the island. The French and English were at one point peacefully cohabiting having separate colonies within the island. However, the English eventually won the battle for dominance over the island, and the French were forced to relinquish her colonies in 1713. Thus, the Irish once again became vulnerable to Anglo religious persecution. They established what would become the frst permanent European settlement on the island in the present day Carr’s Bay region.

Brisket, who would soon successfully petition the Crown for an ofcial charter to administer the island, became the frst governor of this new English colony in 1633. Having established Montserrat as a colony where the Irish no longer need fear the antiPopish sentiments of the European Reformation movement, the Irish began to arrive in droves. Oliver Cromwell, ever the pragmatist, used Montserrat as a location of both forced and voluntary indentured servitude; criminals and those in debt worked off their indemnities by placing themselves in the service of the Crown and its wealthy landowners. Spreading out island-wide from their initial northern outpost, the Irish population grew and became the majority European demographic on island in the mid-1600s. They eventually established the, fttingly named, village of St Patrick’s in the island’s southernmost location. West Africans were soon introduced to Montserrat by the English via the Atlantic Slave Trade, which rapidly became the island’s cash crop. Over the ensuing 100 years, the ethnic majority of the colony changed once again, this time in favor of the slaves, as increasingly larger and larger amounts of Africans were transported to the island as forced labor to work on its sugar plantations.On the Island

The Irish, once occupying the bottom rung of the social order of the Plantocracy as indentured persons, soon became slave owners themselves. Having now arrived at the virtual top of the social pecking order, these nouveau riche landowners varied very little in their harsh treatment of the island’s slaves, as was meted out by the English. Scholars have argued that the Irish proved even more brutal in terms of their treatment of their living “property.”

In the early months of 1768, on March 17th, the island’s slave population staged a revolt. The plan was to use the drunken revelry of the Feast Day of St. Patrick, when the island’s Irish plantocracy’s guard would be lowered under the inebriation of heavy drink in celebration of the holiday. In their plan, the feld hands would storm the Governor’s mansion in the capital of Plymouth using the tools of their trade as weapons: clubs, stones, machetes, rakes, hoes and other metal implements. The domestic, or house, slaves would be charged with using knives and confscating the swords of their drunken Irish house guests to be used by their feld counterparts. The revolt failed. A female slave, domesticated to work as a seamstress in the “Great House,” revealed the plot and the Irish were prepared for the surprise attack. The revolt’s leaders were systematically sought out and ruthlessly tortured and killed as an example to the slave population, in hopes of thwarting future

The Lady & The Harp is its national emblem, and is located on the flag. This represents Erin – the
feminine personification of Ireland, with her harp,
while holding up a cross
representing Catholicism.

attempts. Local lore dictates that they were hung on the silk cotton tree in Cudjoe’s Head. The tree still stands in the village. Over the centuries, the interaction between the island’s African slaves and the Irish landowners created a unique set of circumstances on Montserrat. As a direct result of the cultural diffusion that transpired between the two groups due to interaction and inter-marriage, a biracial population emerged. Irish surnames such as Riley, O’Garro,

Farrell, Greenaway, Burke, and Daley are common. Even Monserrat’s food feature cultural collaborations, evident in the island’s fabled national dish of “Goat Water,” not to be confused with the similarly named Jamaican “Mannish Water,” said to be an amalgamation of Irish goat stew infused with spices commonly used by the African population. Longtime visitors to Montserrat are often alarmed to hear Afro-Caribbean children speak of leprechauns and mermaids, long before the existence of Walt Disney’s hit animated production. Tales of mermaids and nefarious imps have been staples in the cultural diet of the island’s child population for generation after generation due to Irish influence- except this diet included variations to the narratives that added the Africanlore of the emancipated slaves. The impact of Soufriere Hills’ eruption in 1995 is still palpable.

What was once a lively island-wide celebration and national holiday declined after the exodus of the island’s natives during the frst decade of what is referred to locally as “The Crisis”. Current celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day, founded by the island’s civil and church youth groups in 1982, represent an island wounded by both its colonial and volcanic past and present. With the passage of time, volcanic activity has slowed signifcantly and Montserrat is solidly on the path to rebirth and redevelopment. The numerous Caricom nationals from the neighboring Caribbean islands also left their mark on the island’s culture and celebrations. St. Patrick celebrations evolved to include differing nationalities and foods from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guyana and Haiti. The introduction of pan-Caribbean cuisine creates a smorgasbord of delicacies to whet the adventurous palates of our guests from all over the world.

Costume on IslandThis March 17th, and the week leading up to that climax, visitors to Montserrat will be treated to an ambitious calendar of events that includes long distance races, hiking, island-wide boat ride tours of the abandoned City of Plymouth, food tasting events, dances, Calypso shows, pub crawls, lectures, helicopter tours and the much-anticipated parade. Access and accessibility to the island has been the bane of the locals and visiting foreigners, since the volcanic activity has knocked the island out of the LIAT network.

Leeward Island Air Transport (LIAT) is the regional carrier airline, which traditionally provides air service to the smaller islands from the large island hubs of Trinidad, Barbados and Antigua. However, access to the island can be obtained by frst landing in neighboring Antigua and taking either a 1 & 1/4 hour ferry ride over to the island or a 17-minute flight. Montserrat is now a weekly port of call Windstar Cruises and Sea Dream Yacht Club cruises. Additionally, JetBlue Airways, now operates a non-stop flight service from New York’s JFK three times a week. So if you’re looking for a place to celebrate “All Thing Irish,” with an AfroCaribbean flavor, why not visit “The Other Emerald Isle”- Montserrat? We would sure love to have you

 

Comments

%d bloggers like this: