Sunday 4 December 2016

St Patrick’s Day? It must be Montserrat

Our reporter on the annual odyssey by a trio of Dublin troubadours to the sunny Caribbean

Graham Clifford

Published 14/03/2016 | 19:57

Flying the flag on Montserrat: Musicians Tommy Keane, Br Tom Phelan and Martin Healy.
Flying the flag on Montserrat: Musicians Tommy Keane, Br Tom Phelan and Martin Healy.

Brother Tom Phelan caresses his bushy beard before picking up his beloved banjo. It’s placed carefully in its case. The Novena at the Church of St Francis Xavier on Dublin’s Gardiner’s Street is coming to an end and Brother Tom is gearing up for an annual pilgrimage of a very different kind.

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Each March for the last seven years, he has traded Dublin’s northside for the tiny volcanic island of Montserrat — known to many as the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean”.

“It’s an amazing place — beautiful, spiritual and truly unique. The people have opened their hearts to us and tell us that their St Patrick’s Day celebrations wouldn’t be the same without the contribution of our band. We feel blessed to have built up that close relationship with the islanders on Montserrat,” explains Jesuit Brother Tom.

It was on an afternoon in 2004 that Martin Healy, a former Aer Lingus employee, was flicking through the book The Road to McCarthy by British author Pete McCarthy when he stumbled across a chapter on the remote island.

Situated south of Antigua, Montserrat became something of an Irish outpost in the 1700s when 70pc of the islanders were first generation Irish men and women. Some came as planters and speculators but many more as indentured labourers banished during Cromwellian times. The majority hailed from Cork, Waterford and Wexford and, to this day, surnames such as Sweeney, Daley, Barry, Lynch, Murphy, Fenton and Meade are common among the 4,900 inhabitants. 

“I contacted the government of Montserrat by email and asked if they had any traditional Irish musicians playing for the St Patrick’s Day celebrations,” explains Martin, “they said they didn’t and invited me out to see the festivities, which I did. Within two hours of landing on the island, I was on stage in the cultural centre belting out some Irish songs and the rest is history.”

Martin, Brother Tom and well-known uilleann pipes aficionado Tommy Keane will travel to the island this year. The trip is funded by the Montserrat government while Culture Ireland has also assisted over the years.

Incidentally, the cultural centre at Little Bay was financed by fifth Beatle George Martin, who passed away this week. The iconic music producer brought some of the world’s greatest rock and pop musicians to the island’s Air Studios to record albums amid the tropical trees, iguanas and in the shadow of the Soufriere Hills Volcano. The studio was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The region was to suffer further. Just as Martin became part of the fabric of embattled Montserrat two decades ago, a massive volcanic eruption destroyed the capital Plymouth, rendering almost half of the island off limits. Today the studio is derelict and covered in a cloak of volcanic ash, though visitors can still wander around the old bungalow.

Martin has frequently visited the island in recent years and his home is located on a street on the island called ‘Penny Lane’.

 Since then, the Martin Healy Band has since become synonymous with the week-long St Patrick’s Day festivities.

“We play in bars, in the governor’s residence, in the cultural centre, at the island’s large St Patrick’s Day Mass, everywhere and anywhere during the week,” says Martin.

And I can testify the band members enjoy celebrity status on the island, having spent 10 days with them there in 2014.

They feel that there’s a bond between the Irish and the Montserratians which comes from a shared genealogical heritage.

After slavery was abolished, many Irish men married former African slaves on the island and fathered children. Today, the population of Montserrat is described as being Afro-Irish and it is the only country outside of Ireland where St Patrick’s Day is celebrated as a national holiday.

“Undoubtedly, there are certain phrases that the people use which I feel can only be Irish. Also, I’ve met many Montserratians whose facial features could be found in Connemara. All that’s different is the darker colour of the skin. They sometimes refer to themselves as Irish, the national dress is green, white and gold and when you land on the island a shamrock is stamped on your passport,” explains Brother Tom.

Now unofficial Irish ambassadors to Montserrat, Martin Healy and his friends feel the work they do each March helps keep the link alive but would like to see more done to foster the relationship.

“I’ve been asked on a couple of occasions to pass on correspondence from President Higgins to the Prime Minister of Montserrat, which I’m always delighted and proud to do,” says Martin, “but I think we should do more to help the island and raise its profile.

I’d like to see education programmes for young Montserratians who could come to Ireland to study — though a British territory, there isn’t a lot of industry or opportunities and we could help in that regard.

“Also, I mentioned to them that they should enter a contestant in the Rose of Tralee. Can you imagine? Now that really would get people looking up Montserrat on Google as I did all those years ago.”

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