Analysis

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Irish pride resonates to Caribbean as tiny island makes merry

Graham Clifford

Published 17/03/2014|02:30

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Martin Healy, Graham Clifford, Brother Tom Phelan and Niall Brosnan perform at Monty's bar on Little Bay in Montserrat. Photo by Wayne Fenton

As the sun sets over the Caribbean island of Montserrat, I find myself serenading the locals who have come down to the waterfront to meet up with the visiting Irish.

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I belt out 'Raglan Road' and 'Red is the Rose' with the assistance of the Martin Healy band, who have become a regular fixture during the St Patrick's Day celebrations on this tiny volcanic territory.

"Not bad, not bad at all, brother," says one Montserratian with a beer in hand.

Today the island will come to a standstill as the small population of 5,000 converge on the west of Montserrat to parade, sing, dance and celebrate St Patrick's Day in their own unique style.

While the country will be awash with Leprechaun costumes and greenery, they also use the day to remember their African forefathers.

It was in his home in Ballyfermot one afternoon in 2004 that Martin Healy stumbled across a chapter in a book that would change his life forever.

"I was reading Pete McCarthy's 'The Road to McCarthy', and there was a chapter on the West Indies which focused on Montserrat."

The only country in the world outside of Ireland where St Patrick's Day is a national holiday, the tiny Caribbean island, not much bigger than Inis Mor in the Aran Islands, has a population described as Afro-Irish. The Irish made up 70pc of the country's pop-ulation in the mid-1600s and they celebrate their Irish roots to this day.

"It mentioned a St Patrick's Day festival – I'd never heard of the island before," explains Martin.

"I thought I'd email the government here to see if they had Irish musicians over for the celebrations.

"The tourist board in Montserrat said they didn't so they invited me to come out and have a look, which I did. That was nine years ago ... and I'm still coming!" says Martin.

He's even acted as a kind of "unofficial Irish ambassador to Montserrat", hand-delivering a message of support from President Higgins to the Premier here last year.

In the week leading up to St Patrick's Day, the Martin Healy trad band have been entertaining locals and today they'll lead the celebrations on the island, which is technically a British territory. They even allowed me sing with them in Monty's Bar on the seafront at Little Bay.

The colourful trio include Martin; Tom Phelan, a Jesuit brother based in Dublin's Gardiner Street: and Kerryman Niall Brosnan, who plays the accordion.

"I love it here," says Brother Phelan who's been coming since 2009. "The children roar at us 'welcome home' as they pass us on the road. We have been adopted in a way by these beautiful people who are very proud of both their Irish and African heritage."

For 30-year-old Niall Brosnan, from Kilcummin outside Killarney, the island was a mystery until last year.

"I didn't know a lot about it before I came. When you hear about it, you think 'is this for real?' Is there really an island off in the Caribbean where most of the people consider themselves part-Irish? When you're here, you meet people with Irish surnames everywhere and the history is fascinating."

The band gets a grant from Culture Ireland that they match themselves and this year, for the first time, they've received financial assistance from Montserrat.

If anyone thinks the Irish link is tenuous and used solely as a form of tourist marketing, they'd be mistaken. On Montserrat's flag, an Irish woman named 'Erin' can be found playing the harp, a shamrock is stamped on your passport when you arrive on the tiny island (measuring 11 miles long and seven wide) and placenames such as Kinsale, Cork Hill, Galway and Fogarty's Hill can be found.

A complicated history that saw thousands of Irish shipped here, many against their will, in the 1600s and 1700s contributes to one layer of Montserrat's history.

After the abolition of slavery, many Irish and Africans married and had children – hence the term 'Afro-Irish' to describe the population today.

Many who now carry Irish surnames are not technically Irish – in that their African slave forefathers had the name forced upon them by some Irish planters – but, despite the murky past, are proud of their heritage.

Last week the children in the St Augustine primary school on Montserrat performed for pupils in Gaelscoil de hIde in the North Cork town of Fermoy via Skype after spending weeks preparing.

They belted out the Gaelic tune 'Oro se do bheatha abhaile' and danced to Irish traditional music.

Across the Atlantic their Irish counterparts taught their distant cousins about hurling and serenaded them with 'Trasna na dTonnta'.

The song choice is apt. It translates as 'Across the waves' and here, thousands of miles from Ireland, children bearing the names of Sweeney, Allen, Fenton and Daly are reconnecting with their Irish heritage.

In this incredibly friendly and laidback Caribbean island, which suffered huge hardship when the Soufriere Hills Volcano erupted in 1995 destroying the capital Plymouth, St Patrick's Day is about a lot more than one day of drinking and merriment for those who live here today – it's about celebrating their heritage and not forgetting the homeland of their forefathers.

Irish Independent

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