Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patricks Day Caribbean style

I remember when I was about ten years of age watching a great film on Irish TV called "the Black Irish". It documented the quite extraordinary history and adventures of the inhabitants of Montserrat, a beautiful island in the middle of the Caribbean. Montserrat is popularly known by locals and visitors alike as the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean”, not just because of its lush green landscape, but also because of its unique Irish connections and roots which date back centuries.

Montserrat is officially the only country in the world outside Ireland where St Patrick’s Day is a national public holiday. On March 17th, celebrations are staged across the island, consisting of special events, concerts and performances. The festivities now spread over a week, taking on a distinctly Caribbean flavour with blends of calypso, reggae and iron band music blended in with jigs, reels and ballads. During the week, the old custom of wearing green still remains.

Montserrat was originally inhabited by Arawak and Carib Indians. The first European settlers in 1632 were Irish Catholic 'laborers' (some would say forced laborers) brought over from the Protestant island of St Kitts. Whilst Catholics were mostly unwelcome in other British colonies, the religion was tolerated on Montserrat and the island became a refuge for persecuted Irish Catholics. In addition, Cromwell sent indentured laborers and political prisoners to Montserrat following his victory at Drogheda in 1649. By 1678, a census showed that more than half the people on the island were first generation Irish, with the remainder a combination Caribs and Africans (shipped in from West Africa by slave traders). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Irish had the strongest influence on the developing culture of Montserrat, which is still apparent today.

The only other time I remember Monserrat on the TV was for more tragic reasons. The last years of the 20th century brought two events which devastated the island. In September 1989, Hurricane Hugo, a violent category five hurricane struck Montserrat with full force, damaging over 90 percent of the structures on the island. The island soon recovered —only to be struck again by disaster.
In July 1995, Montserrat's Soufriere Hills volcano, dormant throughout recorded history, rumbled to life and began an eruption which eventually buried the island's capital, Plymouth, in more than 12 metres (39 ft) of mud, destroyed its airport and docking facilities, and rendered the southern half of the island uninhabitable. Following the destruction of Plymouth, more than half of the population left the island due to the economic disruption and lack of housing. Few of them ever returned. After a period of regular eruptive events during the late 1990s including one on June 25, 1997, in which 19 people lost their lives, the volcano's activity in recent years has been confined mostly to infrequent ventings of ash into the uninhabited areas in the south.
The people of Montserrat were granted full residency rights in the United Kingdom in 1998, and citizenship was granted in 2002 after a mere 370 years wait! Although more than thirty years ago I still remember that documentary program on our black and white TV set. A local man who had never left the island sang a song in Gaelic Irish which had been handed down to him orally through the generations. Erin go bragh was the song I think, Beautiful Erin. So, lets raise a glass to our Monserratian cousins as they celebrate St. Patricks Day with the rest of us. And remember, if you’d ever love to be some place warm n’ sunny to celebrate Ireland’s Saint’s Day, there is no better place than Montserrat.

reposted from this day last year due to popular demand ;o)


  1. We are celebrating St. Patrick's day here in Banda Aceh tonight at an Italian restaurant.

    It's likely to be a dry night, something a tad unusual for St. Patrick's Day.

    The Irish and the Scots got to many remote corners of the world and were much more adventurous than the English, who preferred to sit behind desks, push pens and spend the evening in their clubs.

    There are references in Acehenese history about fair skinned, blue eyed men coming in baskets (presumably coracles) hundreds of years ago. It could only be the Scots or the Irish. The Vikings never got out of Southern Russia and the English seldom out of their clubs.

    Happy St. P day from Banda Aceh..


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  3. Good article - I'm always so intrigued by the story of the Irish in the Caribbean! You might be interested to know that in Boston there are some links between the Irish and the Montserratian communities. The Irish Immigration Center used to co-sponsor (and may still be doing so) an annual St Patrick's Day party with the Monserrat Aspirers, among other things. (The Irish Immigration Center does a lot of cross-cultural work - I remember someone from there saying there were also some links between the Irish and Montserratians in London as well, though I know nothing about that.)