Tuesday 21 October 2014

Montserrat -- the island in the Caribbean where St Patrick's Day is a holiday

Proud to be Irish: Members of Montserrat's London community celebrate during last year’s St Patrick's Day parade

Graham Clifford tells the story of the tiny 'afro-Irish' nation that even stamps your passport with a shamrock

When we wake up on St Patrick's Day celebrations will already be in full swing on the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean.

South of Antigua, the tiny island of Montserrat, with around 4,000 inhabitants, is the only 'nation' outside of Ireland where a public holiday is granted to honour our patron saint.

Officially a British overseas territory, the islanders are still acutely aware of Montserrat's Irish roots.

Fearing religious persecution by Oliver Cromwell, thousands of Irish men and women fled on board ships destined for the Americas -- although many more were sent as 'indentured labourers' to the islands of the Caribbean, with thousands dying during the crossing.

In exchange for transportation, food, clothing and lodging, young Irish people decided to take a step into the unknown while the families they left behind received a tiny fee in return. The mainly English masters would work the servant hard but then after a pre-agreed number of years, usually seven, the servant would be released.

As well as the influx from the old country, many more Irish workers, who were treated little better than slaves, fled from the islands of St Kitts and Nevis to settle on Montserrat.

A census carried out in 1678 revealed that the Irish made up almost 70pc of Montserrat's population. The 1,845 Irish on the island soon made their mark and once their contracts finished, the former servants became land owners and merchants themselves.

In his book If The Irish Ran The World, author Donald Harman Akenson reveals how the Irish on Montserrat became fierce slave owners, as ruthless businessmen raped west Africa for free labour.

By 1729 the Irish population on the island had fallen dramatically to 641, though it's thought that many married and had children with women who were former slaves -- the practice was abolished in Montserrat in 1834. Today, the island's people are often described as being Afro-Irish.

I spent a year researching Montserrat for a television documentary and was astonished to discover how the trappings of Irish culture remain to this day.

The national dress is green, white and gold and will be on display with pride tomorrow in the island's new capital Brades.

The old capital Plymouth was destroyed by the island's Soufriere Hills volcano in June 1997, and two years ago lava flows spewed from its summit rendering almost half of the island uninhabitable.

Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Dire Straits, Sting, Eric Clapton and many more top artists recorded sessions on the island at the famous Air Studios owned and run by former Beatles producer Sir George Martin -- but the studios weren't spared in the volcanic explosions and today they lie empty.

And surnames such as Reilly, O'Brien and Kelly can still be found amongst the island's dwindling population.

Lashed by hurricanes, partially destroyed by its volcano and surviving largely on decreasing funding from Westminster, this intriguing island struggles to gain recognition abroad.

On a recent train journey from London to Reading, I met a middle-aged man who smelt of cheap beer. He was telling a group of disinterested youths how the Crown mistreats his tiny island, but none of them had ever heard of Montserrat and the whole situation looked like turning ugly.

Irish Independent

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