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Celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Montserrat

FESTIVAL: Women in traditional dresses

THE STREETS of Little Bay will be feeling “hot, hot, hot”, today on St Patrick’s Day filled with patriotic holidaymakers and local islanders marking the 246th anniversary of March 17 when brave enslaved Africans attempted to revolt from their European oppressors who were mainly Irish.

Unlike anywhere else in the world – outside of Ireland –Montserrat is the only nation where St Patrick's Day is a public holiday. The week-long St Patrick's festival provides a dynamic mix of Irish and African heritage, with some traditional Caribbean entertainment thrown in, to make this one of Montserrat's most popular annual tourists’ attractions.

Events taking place during the week no longer take place in St Patricks, which was situated to the south of the island due to the effects of Montserrat's Soufrière Hills volcano, which erupted in 1995, but now take place in Little Bay at the Montserrat Cultural Community Centre, which opened in 2007.

The celebratory activities this year will include a Freedom Hike/Run to commemorate the enslave uprising, a Kite Festival, a cultural performance by the Emerald Community Singers Irish Cabaret, an annual St Patrick’s Day Dinner, a Heritage Day Feast where traditional local food will be on sale, along with a revival of traditional games, storytelling and the heritage day Jamboree performances by masked street dancers in traditional costumes.

A small, beautiful island and British Dependant Territory, Montserrat is situated in the Caribbean Sea, 1,350 miles south east of Miami and near the other Leeward Island of Antigua.

Although named after the Barcelonan Mountain in Catalonia Spain by Christopher Columbus in 1493, the first European settlers on the island were of Irish-Catholic stock, fleeing persecution from nearby St Kitts in the early 1630's, which began the island’s deep rooted Irish heritage.

This history is still evident today from the moment visitors arrive to the small volcanic island and land at Gerald's Airport (formally known as John A Osborne airport) and see the flapping sight of their larger-than-life flag, which immediately reveals its Gaelic roots.

The harp and female figure on the flag and official seal of Montserrat are derived from Irish heraldry. Visitors are also reminded of the island’s Irish past when they receive a shamrock shaped stamp in their passports and are greeted by locals wearing national green dresses - in which green is the dominant colour- not forgetting the never-ending supply of Guinness and green Heineken, which are on tap throughout the island’s bars getting all ready for the festive mood.


COSTUMES: Masqueraders wear their outfits

Further evidence of Montserrat’s Irish heritage can be found reading through the telephone directory. Page after page, Irish surnames parade in seemingly endless columns such as Allen(s), Ryan(s), Daley(s), Tuitt(s), Farrell(s), Riley(s), Skerrett(s), Sweeney(s), Lynche(s) O’Gara(s) and Galloway(s).

There are also a number of streets, towns and villages that hold Irish titles not forgetting the once large stone Catholic Church in the former town centre of Plymouth called St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church.

Historians once recorded that a ship crewed by Irish-speaking Corkmen dropped anchor at Montserrat in the 1800s and were amazed to hear black Montserratians speaking Irish.

As cordial conversations went forward between the two groups in formal Gaelic fashion, the Montserratians referred to Cork as "Corcaigh na gCuan" (Cork of the Harbours), a poetical term for Cork used by the filí (hereditary prophet-poets of the Irish nobility) which had not been in common use in Ireland since the destruction of the Gaelic social system in the 17th century.

The history of Roman Catholic Irish settlers began after they were originally sent to Montserrat as indentured servants by Cromwell. However, the island’s population began to increase rapidly after Irish settlers from neighbouring islands saw Montserrat as a safe haven due to friction with British Protestants.

By the third-quarter of the 17th century, Montserrat had become the most Irish island in the West Indies - seven of every 10 whites were Irish. Once established on the island, which was originally populated by Arawaks and Caribs they soon followed behind their Great British counterparts and set up huge profitable plantations growing sugar, arrowroot and Sea Island cotton.


STUNNING VIEW: Montserrat's volcano

The arrival of enslaved African on Montserrat directly reflected the ever-growing demand for sugar, which was used to sweeten tea and make rum resulting with Africans quickly outnumbering the Irish.

The ratio where blacks outnumbered white slave owners was common throughout the Caribbean. As sugar crops continued to flourish the number of blacks generously surpassed the number of whites living in the region, which led to great difficulties for the white planters, who used their slaves to produce their all-important crops.
An average ratio across the islands was 10 blacks or mulattoes to every one white, but the ratio of black on some sugar plantations, were closer to 50 blacks or mulattoes to every white person.

Revolts by slaves had always been common, however a pattern developed over the years with newly purchased enslaved Africans being more likely to revolt than mulattoes, or slaves born in the islands.

Many slaves brought to the islands including Montserrat were Coromantee Africans, which were slaves brought in from the Gold Coast, Ghana. Many of these people were the Akan, often from the Ashanti tribe and they did not easily leave their leadership positions for servitude.

With the news of slave up-rising spreading like wildfire amongst the islands, Africans enslaved in Montserrat decided to execute an island-wide attack on St Patrick’s Day in 1768 hoping to take the planters by surprise while they celebrated their dead saint St Patrick.

House slaves were instructed to grab all the weapons they could find inside the Government House while field slaves stormed the building with rocks, farm tools, clubs and homemade swords.


NATIONAL FLAG: The colours of Montserrat's flag

Yet, despite months of plotting, their plans had been leaked and their revolt was unsuccessful resulting with nine hangings. The debate over whose to blame still continues until today nevertheless, Montserratians around the globe honour their ancestors bravery and mark the March 17 every year as a reminder of how they fought for their freedom.

In memory of the failed rebellion, Montserratians remember the day through an event called Masquerade where islanders dance the Irish jigs one night, then mocking their one-time masters the next by cracking whips while dressed in tall hats like bishops' miters.

The island, which boats former cricketer Jim Allen, Alphonsus "Arrow" Cassell MBE — musician, known for his soca songHot Hot Hot and Boney M member Maizie Williams as some of its indigenous celebrities also celebrate the day by cooking the national dish “goat water” made from goat meat, spiced with cloves and rum, which hails from the original Emerald Isle.

Other traditional food includes salted codfish, stewed yard fowl, sweet potato “dookna'' and bush tea. Games such as “Zig Zag Zaggett'', which is similar to marbles but played with cashew seeds is also played by the locals as part of the celebration.

Acknowledging Montserrat’s rich heritage, fellow Montserratian and historian Howard Fergus said: “We are celebrating the rise of the slave freedom fighters, but also the rash Catholic element in our history. They both have a place in our legacy, which is celebrated on the anniversary of the Saint's death.”

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