Life St Patrick's Day

Tuesday 2 September 2014

St. Patrick's Day on a Caribbean island

Graham Clifford in Montserrat

Published 14/03/2014 | 17:29

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Danny Sweeney reaches for a cold bottle of beer and sighs.  “What happened here was not nice” he explains.

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“Slaves from Africa and the poorest of the poor from Ireland were forced to work. No regard was given for their lives, their masters didn’t care if they lived or died.”

In his modest wooden bar in the Montserratian village of Salem he asks that the Irish Government support a move by Caribbean nations for compensation to be given from those countries behind the slave-trade.

“Of course the Irish should support us in this, they suffered the same way as our African forefathers and some were involved in the evils of the slave trade themselves.”

The British Governor to Montserrat, Adrian Davis, told the Irish Independent he doesn’t think the Montserratian Government will support the move to seek apologies and reparations from European former colonial nations including Britain.

It’s little wonder. Without financial assistance from Westminster the British territory would struggle to survive. They’re eager not the bite the hand that feeds.

Danny’s family name was imposed on his forefathers by Irish slave owners who came to the island, dubbed ‘the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean’, to make their fortunes.

In his book ‘If the Irish ran the World’, Donald Harman Akenson argues that not only were the Irish eager to get involved in the slave trade in Montserrat but that they were the most barbaric and inhumane of any European landowners here.

Wealthy Protestant planters, who were loyal to the Crown, bought slaves to work in their sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations - but so too did Catholics brought to Montserrat as workers themselves.

Once indentured laborers these settlers from counties such as Cork, Waterford and Wexford, imposed huge hardship on African slaves despite the fact they had once faced similar treatment.

“The white servants dreamed of becoming owners of land and blacks. When they (the Irish) recovered their freedom, after years of hard penitence and unpaid toil, the first thing they did is buy a ‘Negro’ to fan them in siesta hour” wrote Uruguayan novelist and historian Eduardo Galeano

By the mid-1600s the Irish made up an astonishing 70 percent of the population of the tiny volcanic island (measuring 11 miles long and seven miles wide). In total they numbered 1,845 when the 1678 census was taken - many sent there as slaves. During Cromwells reign of terror in Ireland thousands of vagrants and those who opposed his rule were sent to the West Indies with many ending up on Montserrat. When he uttered those famous words ‘to hell or Connaught’ this was the ‘hell’ he was referring to.

Amongst the first documented Irish here were Catholics with surnames such as Sullivan, Barry, Allen and Murphy and Protestants bearing the family names of Skerritt, Meade, Daly, Lee and Dyer.       

I ask one elderly gentleman down by the water front in Montserrat’s new capital Little Bay (the previous one Plymouth being destroyed by the Island’s Soufriere Hills volcano in 1997) if he knows what the actual name of his slave forefathers were.

“By the time they reached Montserrat they were known as numbers, nothing else, how could they do that to them? How could the Irish especially do this, where did their God disappear to?” he asks.

Historical accounts make for uncomfortable reading from an Irish viewpoint. It’s claimed they ill-treated their slaves to a far more disturbing degree than English and Scottish planters at the time.

Allegations of rape against female slaves by Irish masters were rampant.

The picturesque area of Cudjoe Head on Monsterrat got its name after a slave named Cudjoe ran away from his master, was caught here and lynched and his head was placed on a tree to remind others what would happen if they attempted to flee.

African slaves, living in fear of their Irish masters, decided to take revenge hoping they could overthrow the planters and regain their freedom.

In 1768, they planned an island-wide attack on St. Patrick's Day, when they knew the Irish planters would be celebrating and drunk.

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

But someone leaked the plan.

When the Irish planters discovered the plot they punished the slaves severely - hanging nine in public.

``There is a myth that the Irish, being oppressed by the British, were more humane, and this exposes that lie'' says Island historian Howard Fergus.

Today the Afro-Irish population of Montserrat celebrate their background of mixed race.

“I consider myself Montserratian. I don’t consider myself black and I don’t consider myself white. I always tell people I am a new race of man” explains Danny Sweeney whose forefather on his mother’s side was Irish-born Henry Dyer who became the Chief Judge on Montserrat in the mid-1700s.

On St. Patrick’s Day a slave village will be erected here to remember their African heritage. Songs of slavery will be sung and foods cooked as they were all those years ago.

There’s no doubt that many of the Irish who visited this mystical and unique Caribbean island in former centuries left a positive mark - but there’s a darker side to the history of the Irish in Montserrat too.

Where now the connection with the original Emerald Isle is celebrated, there were many years when the Irish on Montserrat were feared and loathed.

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