Caribbean Matters: St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on ‘The Emerald Isle’ of the Caribbean

The Irish Times has covered some of the history. In 2016, Lorna Siggins wrote: 

Originally known as Alliouagana, and renamed by a passing Christopher Columbus, the original residents were Saladoid Indians, along with Arawak and Caribs from South America. Irish indentured servants became the first European settlers when they were shipped out from neighbouring St Kitt’s in 1632. The English governor of St Kitt’s, Thomas Warner, had feared the mainly-Catholic Irish might side with the French, who had their eye on the colony he had been awarded as a royal patent.

Survivors of the Amazon, fugitives from Virginia, and prisoners sent out from here by Cromwell added to the Irish mix. Some 70 percent of all settlers gave Ireland as country of origin in the first Leeward islands census of 1678. When sugar cane replaced tobacco and indigo, entrepreneurs from several Irish counties, including representatives of several Galway “tribes”, set up plantations and imported thousands of African slaves.

Queen’s University Belfast academic Donald Akenson and Sir Howard Fergus, Montserrat historian and poet, have researched the less edifying aspects of this relationship, debunking any notions of a “nice” Irish slave holder or overseer. Ears could be cut off as punishment for minor theft, death was a regular penalty, and mulattos born of mixed-race relationships could not be christened by Catholic priests.

This history was also documented in a 1986 film, The Other Emerald Isle:

Two short clips from the 1986 documentary The Other Emerald Isle, about the ‘black Irish’ of Montserrat in the Caribbean. It was presented by Michael D. Higgins, at that time a lecturer in University College, Galway, now the President of Ireland. The first clip is part of the introduction, the second is a song from blind Moses Fenton in his rum shop. The film tells the story of Ireland’s involvement in slavery, a St. Patrick’s Day revolt when slaves and their Irish overseers rose against their English masters, the culture and music of the island. 

Yolanda Evans, writing for JStor Daily, details what makes Montserrat’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration different from those in Ireland and the Irish diaspora, pointing out: “This island’s celebrations are not the typical American-style merriment”:

On March 17, 1768, the enslaved people of a Caribbean island planned a revolt, assuming the Irish slave owners would be drunk and distracted.

Since many of the slave owners were Irish, the slaves picked St. Patrick’s Day in 1678 to revolt. Most of the island would be drunk and distracted due of the celebration. But their plans were overheard by an Irish woman, and the overseers were ready instead of being inebriated as the enslaved people hoped they would be. Hoping to quell future revolts, the authorities hanged nine people for their roles, and another 30 were imprisoned and sold off the island. Not only was the ringleader, Cudjoe, hanged, but his head was also placed in a tree—a grim “cautionary tale” to other enslaved people that if they dare to revolt, it would cost them their lives. Although the rebellion was a failure, slavery on the island would eventually be abolished in 1834.

Montserrat turned this horrific moment in history into an opportunity to celebrate and to educate others by combining their Irish and African heritage. This island’s celebrations are not the typical American-style merriment. Since becoming a national holiday in 1985, the ten-day St. Patrick’s celebration is filled with parades, lectures, and parties to honor the uprising and celebrate the island’s history. Montserrat rebranded itself globally as the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” after volcanic activity buried the former capital city of Plymouth and its surrounding villages in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Rebecca Toy wrote a major feature for National Geographic about the celebrations on the island last year:

Modern St. Patrick’s Day activities in Montserrat are an often uneasy balancing act between commemoration and celebration. In recent years, the festival started with a ceremonial torch lighting at Cudjoe’s Head village. Festival goers could hike to historical sites through rainforest with James “Scriber” Daley, Montserrat’s famed “bird whisperer”; take a guided boat tour around the Soufrière Hills volcano exclusion zone; and then drink until dawn at Leprechaun’s Revenge, the annual pop-up party under the stars.

As the festival expanded, so did the controversy. Some consider the events soulless and inauthentic partying. Older generations are vigilant against forgetting slavery’s impact on the island’s culture.

Masquerading, an Afro-Caribbean tradition of spiritual dancing and coded communication, still highlights this fragile co-existence in St. Patrick’s celebrations. More than an irresistible beat, the masquerades share messages of both personal dignity and cloaked mocking. Overt references include the dancer with the whip, hats shaped like Catholic bishops’ miters, and steps from Irish jigs.

For those of you who are interested in a more in-depth look at Monserrat, this 2005 documentary, which focuses on the 2005 St. Patrick’s Day festivities, has been posted to YouTube in nine parts, which you can find here.  

For those of you who follow natural disasters, you may remember the devastation suffered on Montserrat in 1995 when the Soufrière Hills volcano erupted for the first time in centuries, followed in June 25, 1997 by an even larger eruption that resulted in the deaths of 19 people. (This should not to be confused with last year’s La Soufriere volcanic eruption on St. Vincent.)

The island has faced economic hardships since then. Encouraging tourism and St. Patrick’s Day Carnival events has been a key part of recovery, though as for all tourist destinations, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges. 

Travel journalist Melissa Noel, who founded the YouTube channel Destination Diaspora, gives us a look at last year’s festivities:

Hope you’ve enjoyed this brief visit to the “other Emerald Isle.” Join me in the comments section below for more on Montserrat and the weekly Caribbean News Roundup.

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