Tuesday 17 September 2019

Having the craic on St Patrick's island in the sun

The people of Montserrat say they're Afro-Irish, and many Irish help them to celebrate their national day as Graham Clifford finds out

Graham Clifford

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.

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 which 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 focussed 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 Mór in the Aran Islands, has a population described as Afro-Irish. The Irish made up 70pc of the country's population 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 the government of 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 place names 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 hÍde in the North Cork town of Fermoy via Skype after spending weeks preparing to showcase their talents.

They belted out the Gaelic tune 'Óró sé 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.

Kate Spanos from Washington DC, whose mother's people were Kennedys from Tralee, has been teaching Irish dancing on the island in recent months.

She studied traditional Irish dance performance in the University of Limerick and decided to come to Montserrat to find out more about the island's people and their culture and work on a PhD.

Kate established workshops under the title of 'Blended Rhythms' with a Senegalese musician and together they teach the children dances from Ireland and Africa.

"It's all very freestyle and I don't tell the children to have their hands down by their sides, it wouldn't feel natural to them. They'll throw in a roll with their shoulders while Irish dancing and they put their own creative mark on the dances."

Mainly self-funded, she's hoping the Irish Government can offer some assistance so children and adults on Montserrat can continue to learn the dances of their ancestors.

"It would be wonderful if there was some way the Irish Government could support us. By learning Irish dancing, present-day Montserratians are reconnecting with part of their heritage. I think it's good for Ireland and good for Montserrat."

In this incredibly friendly and laid-back Caribbean island, which suffered huge hardship when the Soufrière 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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