Timeline, History, and Cultural Legacy of the Irish in Montserrat – Black Irish of Montserrat

One of the recurring conversations I have with fellow Montserratians relates to the history of the Irish in Montserrat. It often comes up around the annual St Patrick’s Day Festival. Lasting ten days, attendance to the Montserrat St Patrick’s Day Festival now rivals the Montserrat Carnival held in December. In fact, with warmer weather and cheaper flights in March, it is attracting more and more people from the Montserrat diaspora.   

As the festival becomes more popular, there is increasing interest in the history of the Irish in the British Caribbean.  Below I provide insight into the history of the Irish in Montserrat and discuss whether the Irish were enslaved people in Montserrat and the wider Caribbean region.  I then discuss the myth of the Black Irish of Montserrat,  the Irish legacy in Montserrat, and Montserrat’s Saint Patrick’s Day Festival.  Finally, I discuss ways for the organizers to develop the festival in a more responsible way,  bringing history alive and offering visitors the opportunity to learn from the past. 

Montserrat map showing restricted area due to volcanic eruptions. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Montserrat map showing restricted area due to volcanic eruptions. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

Montserrat Historical Timeline

The Caribbean island of Montserrat, part of the Lesser Antilles chain, is pear-shaped and roughly 40 square miles.  One of the colonies in the former British Empire, many of the early European inhabitants were Irish. Below is a historical timeline of Montserrat, starting with the first sighting from Christopher Columbus in 1493 during his second voyage to the Americas.

1493: Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sponsored by Spain, spots the island on November 11 during his second voyage to the Americas. He named Montserrat after the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey, located on the mountain of Montserrat in Monistrol de Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain. Note that the indigenous name for Montserrat is Allioguana, meaning land of the prickly bush. 

1631: Sir Henry Colt and his companions make a brief stop on Montserrat. His account is mentioned in the book “Colonising Expeditions to the West Indies and Guiana, 1623-1667” by V.T. Harlow.

1632: Montserrat becomes an English colony when Sir Thomas Warner, the first Governor of nearby Saint Kitts (Saint Christopher), sends Irish Catholics from his territory to Montserrat to create a settlement. He did so as relations between Catholics and Protestants had become hostile.

1632: Captain Anthony Brisket becomes the first English Governor of Montserrat. After creating a settlement, tobacco, indigo, and cotton were the initial crops produced in Montserrat, and the output was exported to England.

Cotton fibers from a tree in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Cotton fibers from a large cotton tree in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

1634: Irish Catholics from the Jamestown colony in Virginia (USA) arrive in Montserrat.

1636: St Anthony’s Church is built by Governor Brisket. It is a Church of England / Anglican Church despite most of the population being Roman Catholic.

1649: Over 1,000 White families live in Montserrat; most are of Irish descent. They are a mix of landowners, farm tenants, merchants, and indentured servants.

1649: Montserrat gets an influx of Irish political prisoners who English General and Statesman Oliver Cromwell deported after his victorious Battle of Drogheda in Ireland.

1651: The wish by the Irish for Montserrat to be a refuge for Roman Catholics in the Caribbean is not realized as legislation denies them religious freedom, and they cannot worship openly.

1651: Enslaved West Africans begin to arrive in Montserrat.  The slave ships from Africa initially arrived in the Caribbean region, stopping at port towns like Bridgetown in Barbados.  Parts of Barbados’ capital are now UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Plan of a slave ship which transported enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Plan of a slave ship that transported enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

1660s: The social structure of Montserrat includes an Anglo-Irish planter class like the Kirwan family, with white indentured servants and an increasing population of enslaved Africans.

1665 to 1667: Montserrat is invaded by the French during the Second Dutch War, part of a coordinated Franco-Irish attack. The Irish conspired with the French due to their frustrations around religious restrictions imposed by the British. The British regained control as part of the Treaty of Breda.

1668: Catholic priests in Montserrat are allowed to minister to their congregation openly. Before this, priests were smuggled into Montserrat disguised as merchants, wood buyers, fishermen, etc.

1671: The Leeward Act established a Leeward Island Federation with headquarters in Nevis and later Antigua.

1672: A major earthquake happens on Christmas Day, destroying St Anthony’s Church.

1678: William Stapleton, Governor of the Leeward Islands, commissions the first leeward islands census. From that first official census, Montserrat’s population is reported as 3,674, of which 2,682 are White (1,869 Irish) and 992 are Black.

1689: The Irish outnumber the British three to one on Montserrat and threaten to denounce their British allegiance and again align with the French.

1700 to 1704: 1,021 tons of sugar were produced in Montserrat.  Growing and harvesting sugar cane dominated the agricultural output of Montserrat for nearly 200 years. 

Cut sugar cane in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Cut sugar cane in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

1712: The French invaded with 3,000 soldiers, overpowered the British, burned buildings, and carried off 1,200 enslaved Africans.

1729: Montserrat’s population jumped to 6,908, with 5858 enslaved Africans and 1,050 Whites.

1735: 3,150 tons of sugar was produced in Montserrat.

1749: The Montserrat Assembly passes a law that makes it mandatory for all voters to take oaths of allegiance to the King and the Anglican Church.

1750: The Montserrat Government House is built in the capital, Plymouth. Rebuilt in 1908, the building is under volcanic ash due to the Soufriere Hill Volcano eruption.  

Painting of Government House on the wall across form the BBC Complex in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Painting of Government House by Tabu Duberry on the wall across from the BBC Complex in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

1767: A major hurricane and flood occurred, with Fort Ghaut overflowing and threatening Plymouth.

1768: A slave rebellion was planned for St. Patrick’s Day in Montserrat, but the plot was discovered, and the main organizers were executed.

1773: Montserrat is devastated by a major hurricane. Damages are estimated at £50,000 (approximately £8,492,263.34 in today’s money). 

1775: Montserrat’s population jumps to 11,148, and just 12% are White (approximately 1,338).

1782: French invaders take possession of Montserrat, having previously captured the island for short periods in 1664 and 1667.

1783: Under the Treaty of Versailles, Montserrat is returned to Britain.

1788: The White population decreases to just 290 on Montserrat, and the majority are Irish Catholics.

1793: Methodism which began primarily through the work of John Wesley, formerly an Anglican priest, was introduced in Montserrat.

Cavalla Hill Methodist Church in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Cavalla Hill Methodist Church in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

1798: The Leeward Islands Federal Assembly abolishes civil restrictions against Irish and Roman Catholics.

1816: A major hurricane passes through on September 16.

1828: An act was passed in Montserrat to give civil and political equality to all the Irish people in Montserrat.

1833: The British government passed the Slavery Abolition Act, emancipating all enslaved persons in the British West Indies.

1834: Emancipation comes into effect on August 1, and an apprenticeship system is established. This required formerly enslaved Black people to continue working for their former masters for four to six years in exchange for provisions.

1837/8: After pressure from the British public, the various apprenticeship systems were abolished.

1843: A 8.5 magnitude earthquake on February 8 caused severe damage and six fatalities on Montserrat. 

1866: A Crown Colony government was established in Montserrat (also in Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, and Turks & Caicos). This replaced the Proprietary government, which included a Governor, Council appointed by the King, and Assembly with 12 local landowners (all Anglican).

1871: Montserrat becomes part of the federal crown colony of the British Leeward Islands. The federation was dissolved in 1956.

1881:  Montserrat’s population jumps to 10,083.   From then on, Montserrat’s population would be between ten and fifteen thousand until the 1995 Soufriere Hill Volcano eruption.

Montserrat Historical Population Profile – Census 1881 – 2018 via Statistics Department Montserrat.

1958-62: Montserrat is part of the short-lived Federation of the West Indies. When this was dissolved, the island became a Crown Colony in 1962.

1989: Hurricane Hugo causes widespread damage to most structures on the island.

1989: Police investigation into Montserrat’s offshore finance industry leads to several arrests. Many banking licenses are revoked.

1992: A further investigation into Montserrat’s revised offshore finance industry resulted in most offshore banks’ closure.

1995: On July 18, the Soufriere Hill Volcano reawakened in southern Montserrat and threatened the near 12,000 population. Officials evacuated 5,000 people from the southern part of Montserrat after the volcano began spewing explosive pyroclastic flows with lava pieces, volcanic ash, and hot gases. Two-thirds of the island is now part of an exclusion zone, including the capital Plymouth, buried under volcanic ash.  Many migrate to the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere in the Caribbean region.  

View of the Montserrat Soufrière Hills volcano from Garibaldi Hill. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. View of the Montserrat Soufrière Hills Volcano from Garibaldi Hill. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

Were Irish people in Montserrat and the rest of the British Caribbean islands enslaved?

First, let us start with the number of Irish people and enslaved Africans who arrived in the Caribbean during the colonial era.

How many Irish arrived in the Caribbean during the colonial era: According to Irish historian Thomas Bartlett via an article in The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume II, it is “generally accepted” that approximately 10,000 Irish were sent to the West Indies involuntarily, and about 40,000 came as voluntary indentured servants. With conditions difficult in Ireland, many sought free passage to the Americas and agreed to be indentured servants for five to seven years. Thus, most of the Irish people in the Caribbean during the colonial era were economic migrants!

How many enslaved Africans arrived in the Caribbean during the colonial era: According to David Lambert, Professor of Caribbean History at the University of Warwick, some 5 million enslaved Africans were taken to the Caribbean, almost half of whom were brought to the British Caribbean (2.3 million) which includes Montserrat.

Now let us address the treatment of the two groups.

Undoubtedly, the Irish suffered hardships in Montserrat and elsewhere in the Caribbean. However, they were not treated the same. There were laws to distinguish the two groups and even prevent them from socializing with one another. Also:

  • Irish indentured servants were temporary and non-hereditary; they were typically bonded for five to seven years, whereas with enslaved Africans, it was perpetual and hereditary.
  • Irish indentured servants were paid (perhaps poorly but paid nonetheless), whereas enslaved Africans were not paid.
  • Irish indentured servants did not have their families broken up and sold at will, whereas that was the case for enslaved Africans.
  • Irish indentured servants had some legal protection and could file legal complaints against their masters for mistreatment. In contrast, enslaved Africans could not as they were considered chattel property over which their masters had absolute authority.
  • Irish indentured servants who were convicted of stealing a master’s property would get additional years under servitude; for enslaved Africans, the punishment could be as severe as death. 
  • Irish indentured servants could leave the island after their indentured period if they had the financial resources; enslaved Africans had no such option! 

NOTE: During their indentured period, Irish servants in the Caribbean were provided with food, clothing, and shelter. Then, payment at the end of their indentured service period would include a small piece of land (particularly for early arrivals), cash, or muscovado sugar equivalent, known as white gold.  

Montserrat Batik Shamrock by Shan Murrell. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Montserrat Batik Shamrock by Shan Murrell. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

Any attempts to classify Irish indentured servants and enslaved Africans in the Caribbean as the same is just historical vandalism and whitewashing. Also, it fails to acknowledge that some of those who tortured indentured servants from Europe (Scottish, English, Welsh, French, German, Ireland, etc.) and enslaved Africans were Irish. Britain may have established the settlement on Montserrat, but the Irish were at the forefront in managing the island, often through brute force.  The poor treatment of enslaved African in Montserrat is detailed in Olaudah Equiano’s noteworthy narrative:  The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African.  He writes:

“With a light heart, I bade Montserrat farewell, and never had my feet on it since; and with it, I bade adieu to the sound of the cruel whip, and all other dreadful instruments of torture; adieu to the offensive sight of the violated chastity of the sable females, which has too often accosted my eyes; adieu to oppressions (although to me less severe than most of my countrymen); and adieu to the angry howling, dashing surfs. I wished for a grateful and thankful heart to praise the Lord God on high for all his mercies!”

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

Finally, the Irish who arrived on the island as indentured servants had the opportunity to move up the social ladder. In fact, many of the early indentured servants to Montserrat became farm tenants, plantation owners, and merchants – remaining in the Caribbean region or returning to England and Ireland.

The British, through legislation, prevented the Irish from getting fully involved in the slave trade (i.e., the ability to form their own “African Company” with ships to transport enslaved people from Africa to North America). Still, many Irish people became rich by supplying the British, French, and Dutch slave traders and plantation owners with supplies (food, linen, clothes, materials, etc.) since the planters in the Caribbeans mainly focused on the production of crops. And via the Legacies of British Slave Ownership, we learn that when the British abolished slavery in 1833, a group of Irish-born and Irish-domiciled slave owners received about £800,000 of the £20 million paid out by the British government.  The £800,000 is about £105.85 million (US$122.72 million) in today’s money.   

Legacies of British Slave-ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Legacies of British Slave-ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

The formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants in Montserrat and elsewhere in the Caribbean region have not received reparations. Furthermore, many still face trauma as experienced through social and institutional racism.

Because of the different treatment during slavery and compensation after Emancipation, the Irish cannot be described as enslaved people in the Caribbean. Yes, some political prisoners or religious exiles were treated harshly and experienced discrimination, but their circumstances differed greatly from the enslaved Africans. Also, even the political prisoners who were in servitude longer (typically ten years) could work off their time and gain their freedom, then become tenant farmers, merchants, and even part of the planter class.  To deny that is historical erasure and deflection of the experiences of millions of enslaved Africans and their descendants.

Thankfully, most historians soundly reject the “white-slave” narrative put forth by Irish journalist Sean O’Callaghan in the book To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland.  The Irish who arrived in the Caribbean suffered, but they had more rights and opportunities than the enslaved Africans.  For more insight, read Contesting “White Slavery” in the Caribbean: Enslaved Africans and European Indentured Servants in Seventeenth-Century Barbados by Jerome S. handler and Matthew C. Reilly.  

Black Irish in Montserrat

By the mid-1800s, most Irish people had left Montserrat after several major natural disasters, the decline in the sugar industry, and the end of slavery. As a result, most Montserratians today are not Irish or Black Irish, as they share minimal or zero genetic links with people from Ireland. From a review of the Montserrat census data, we see that only 2.75% of the current population is White (not all are Irish, and most are ex-pats, so relatively new arrivals). Also, the mixed population of which the Black Irish are a part is just 4.8%. So while there are Black Irish in Montserrat, their numbers are minuscule. Even before the Soufriere Hill Volcano eruption in 1995, most people in Montserrat classified themselves as African/Black.

Montserrat Population by Ethnicity 1991, 2001, 2011 and 2018 via Statistics Department Montserrat. Montserrat Population by Ethnicity 1991, 2001, 2011, and 2018 via Statistics Department Montserrat.

Montserrat: St Patrick's Festival_People hanging out in Heritage Village in Salem. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Crowd hanging out in Heritage Village in Salem during St Patrick’s Day Festival. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

Based on the insight and above data points, It is difficult to comprehend why the myth of the Black Irish of Montserrat continues to grow.  Most Montsrratrians are not Irish or Black Irish, whether you center the conversation around: Race, Ethnicity, or Nationality as defined by PrepScholar. Most Montserratians are the descendants of enslaved West Africans and so would classify themselves as:

  • Race: Black
  • Ethnicity: Black Montserratian plus Black Caribbean or Afro-Caribbean
  • Nationality: Montserratian (also through migration British, American, Canadian, etc.).
Race, Ethnicity, or Nationality definitions and examples via PrepScholar.
Race, Ethnicity, or Nationality definitions and examples via PrepScholar.

Personally, I was never asked if I was Black Irish until the Saint Patrick’s Day Festival gained popularity (despite growing up in Boston, one of the most Irish cities in the United States).  Thus, I took two DNA tests to confirm my ancestry. This includes one from AncestryDNA and the other from African Ancestry. My AncestryDNA results show that I am 95% African and 5% European: 4% from Ireland and 1% from Scotland. This is not enough to classify me as Irish or Black Irish. Well, perhaps if you implement the one-drop rule. HA!

AncestryDNA results AncestryDNA results.

African Ancestry, which has over 30,000 DNA samples from Africa, further pinpointed my maternal ancestry to specific tribes in Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leon, and Senegal.

African Ancestry results. African Ancestry results.

NOTE: Other Montserratians I know have taken these DNA tests and gotten similar results. I know this small grouping isn’t enough to pass peer review in an academic journal. So I should mention that Irish genealogist Joanna Cicely Fennell visited Montserrat during the 2018 St Patrick’s Day Festival and distributed dozens of free AncestryDNA kits as part of a Family History & DNA Project sponsored by AncestryProGenealogists. Those who participated got their AncestryDNA results, and then a report was to be published detailing the genetic connections between Ireland and Montserrat. However, this was never released publicly. Perhaps in time, it will be, so we can put to rest the growing myth around the Black Irish in Montserrat.

Legacy of the Irish in Montserrat

So what is the legacy of the Irish who started arriving on Montserrat during the 17th century, whether voluntary or involuntary, from Saint Kitts, Virginia (USA) or directly from Ireland? Well, while the Irish settlers played a significant role in developing the lush green island, most Irish people left the island by the mid-1800s after several major natural disasters, the decline in the sugar industry, and the end of slavery. Three hundred years on, the legacy of the Irish in Montserrat is mainly evidenced in five ways:

Places (villages, estates, mountains, and shorelines).
There are many places in Montserrat with Irish names. These include:

  • Villages: Cork Hill, Kinsale, Rileys, Sweeneys, Ogarro’s, etc.
  • Parishes: St John’s Parish, St Patrick’s Parish (covered in volcanic ash), etc.
  • Estates: Blakes Estate, Dyer Estate, Galways Estate, Farrells Estate, Lee Estate, Riley Estate, Molyneux Estate, etc.
  • Hills and Mountains: Fogarthy Hill, Reids Hill, Fergus Mountain, Roche’s Mountain, etc.
  • Beaches and Coastline: Carrs Bay, Trants Bay, etc.

Partial view of Carrs Bay in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Partial view of Carrs Bay in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

Surnames: A review of the Monsterrat phone will show that there are many people in Montserrat with Irish surnames. These Irish surnames include Allen, Daley, Farrell, Galloway, Kirwan, Riley, Roche, O’Donoghue, O’Garro, Lynch, Sweeney, Irish, Meade, Roach, Tuitt, Osborne, Ryan, etc. This isn’t all that surprising, as, before Emancipation, most enslaved Africans did not have/use surnames. Thus, they adopted the names they knew, most often the ones used by their British and Irish masters.

Montserrat National Flag/Coat of Arms: Montserrat’s national flag includes a Union flag on the top left and the national coat of arms on the bottom right. The Montserrat coat of arms consists of a White woman wearing a green dress. She is thought to be Erin, the national personification of Ireland. She holds a Celtic / Irish harp which is another symbol of Ireland. This coat of arms was adopted on April 10, 1909, so long after most of the Irish left the island.

Passport: A large shamrock is stamped in green ink on arrival to Montserrat.

National Holiday: Montserrat is the only place outside Ireland to have St Patrick’s Day as a national public holiday, but it is not to celebrate Saint Patrick’s, the Paton Saint of Ireland. It honors the enslaved Africans who lost their lives after the failed 1768 rebellion.

The flag of Montserrat is made up of a Union Jack and the Coat of Arms.

Are Irish symbols, place names, and surnames enough to make the majority of Montserratians Irish? Many, like myself, argue no, as most of us are not genetically Irish. The majority are the descendants of enslaved West Africans. Furthermore, there remains minimal Irish heritage and cultural influence on our language, music, food, and general way of life! Montserratians speak and write British English and Montserrat Creole/Patois – we have similar word patterns and diction as folks from neighboring islands like Antigua & Barbuda. Montserrat’s music includes several different genres (calypso, soca, reggae, steel pan), etc.) with heavy influence from Africa.  Furthermore, Montserrat’s food is a fusion of Amerindian, Creole, European (not just Irish), and especially West African cuisine.

American anthropologist John Messenger would have you thinking otherwise. He visited Monserrat in the summer of 1965 for about seven weeks of ethnographic field research. He also spent three weeks doing library research in Ireland. From his study, he published a now widely quoted paper in Caribbean Quarterly (June 1967) indicating that there were strong cultural links to Ireland. He writes:

“The Irish heritage is manifested in the phenotypes of most islanders and in the English and possibly in the creole, that they speak; in place-names and surnames which still are employed; and in certain characteristics of the Black Irish, but not limited to them.  Irish “cultural imponderables” – revealed in motor habits, linguistic patterns, musical styles, various systems of values, and codes of etiquette – are as prevalent as African ones among the Black Irish….”

To accept Messenger’s hypothesis that African and Irish traditions are on the same level in Montserrat is to ignore the wisdom of the elders and local historians like Dr. George Irish and Dr. Howard A. Fergus.  In his book Montserrat: History of a Caribbean Colony, Dr. Fergus writes,

“There is perhaps a quarter-truth in all of this, for it would be difficult for the Irish to live in close proximity with the slaves as small slave-owners and indentured servants without some inheritable cultural exchange.  But Messenger bases too much on conjecture and exaggerations and is thin on details.”

Montserrat History of a Caribbean colony by Howard Fergus. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Montserrat History of a Caribbean colony by Howard Fergus. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

For example, Messenger asserts that Irish settlers introduced the Montserrat national dish goat water. In the Caribbean Quarterly article titled The Influence Of The Irish In Montserrat, he writes,

“The most tasty delicacy in the diet of the islanders is “goat water,” an Irish type stew made with goat meat which is believed to have been introduced by Irish settlers.  An identical recipe, learned in her youth when goat often was eaten, was given to my wife by the aged spouse of a Connemara farmer the week after we left Montserrat in 1965.” 

Now there may be similarities between the Montserrat national and Irish stew, but to claim its origins are all Irish fails to acknowledge that similar recipes for goat meat existed in Africa. Essentially, Messenger found one or two examples for each category and made sweeping generalizations about the legacy of the Irish in Montserrat.  Baffling as while the Irish lived in Montserrat for hundreds of years, their numbers when Messenger visited and today are minimal. Thus while there is an archeological legacy with names of places and surnames, the cultural heritage of the Irish on Montserrat is limited.

Eating goat water during Saint Patrick's Day Festival in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Eating goat water during Saint Patrick’s Day Festival in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

NOTE: John Messenger’s Caribbean Quarterly article inspired other academic researchers to visit the island to uncover more about the Irish connections to Montserrat. And sadly, he was not the last to get the facts wrong regarding Montserrat’s cultural traditions. A more recent example relates to a paper by Krysta Ryzewski and Laura McAtackney titled: Historic and Contemporary Irish Identity on Montserrat: The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean

One of the glaring errors in the paper relates to the Montserrat national dress introduced in 2002. They assert the skirt is “a green, white and orange Tartan (a design that has Scottish, Welsh and Irish historic precedents).” This couldn’t be more wrong, as the Montserrat national dress is not made from wool fabric typically used for Irish / Scottish tartans. The fabric of the Montserrat national dress skirt is polyester cotton and madras,  which was “brought to Montserrat and the rest of the Caribbean from India, in very early colonial times, and used to make clothing for the laboring classes.”

This is why it is so important for people in the Caribbean region to play a more active role in documenting their history and culture. Otherwise, outsiders (most well-meaning) will do so and often get the most basic of facts wrong!

Young lady wearing Montserrat National Dress. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. A young lady wearing Montserrat National Dress. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

Montserrat’s Saint Patrick’s Day Festival

So if Irish cultural and DNA links are minimal in modern-day Montserrat, why is there a week-long Saint Patrick’s Day Festival, you ask? As Dr. Howard A. Fergus outlines in his book St Patrick’s Day Celebration in Montserrat: A History,  the origins of the festival date back to 1972, when the Montserrat Secondary School had a Know Your Past exhibition that highlighted Montserrat historical events through art, music, and drama.

From this Know Your Past exhibition, more people began to learn about the slave rebellion planned for March 17, 1768. The rebellion organizers (enslaved Africans) viewed Saint Patrick’s Day as a weak point in security for the Irish.  Thus, their plan for the uprising was to wait until the Irish overseers were drunk from St Patrick’s Day celebrations and then attack. However, the plot was discovered, and the main organizers were executed after the failed uprising.

Montserrat: St Patrick's Festival - Representation of freedom fighters on map of Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Representation of freedom fighters on a map of Montserrat, part of production for play at Montserrat’s St Patrick’s Festival. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

Beyond the Know Your Past exhibition at the Montserrat Secondary School in 1972, St Patrick’s Day was also observed in the Parish of St Patrick’s. This was in the southwest part of the island, and the Roman Catholic Church primarily organized events. The events were religious and community-based.

Then in 1985, through advocacy, Saint Patrick’s Day became a national public holiday to honor the enslaved Africans who lost their lives in the fight for freedom. It is not about honoring St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Note that only about 11% of the Montserrat population is Roman Catholic.

Via the Montserrat census data, we see that most people in Montserrat are protestants, with Anglican (17.7%), Pentecostal (16.1%), Seventh Day Adventis (15%), and Methodist (13.9%) being the top four denominations.

St. Martin de Porres Roman Catholic Church in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. St. Martin de Porres Roman Catholic Church in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

The desire to honor our African ancestors is why there was a more prominent African element in the Montserrat Saint Patrick’s Day Festival. Circa 2013 to 2015, there was an African Music Festival with high-profile African musicians. It was billed as the “Caribbean’s First African Music Festival.” The African Musical Festival is no longer a part of St Patrick’s Festival in Montserrat due to funding. There are still African heritage events, including:

  • Saint Patrick’s Day Lecture
  • Heritage Bus Tour
  • African Fashion Show (Madras – national dress)
  • Heritage (Slave) Feast – traditional foods,music,  etc.
  • Parade – masquerade, and troupes from Montserrat and nearby islands

Masquerade dancers from Montserrat and Guadeloupe at St Patrick's Day Parade Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Masquerade dancers from Montserrat and Guadeloupe at St Patrick’s Day Parade Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

The more popular events include those organized by private promoters. The focus is on merriment rather than historical reflection and commemoration. These events include:

  • Parties/Fetes
  • Soca Concert
  • Reggae Concert
  • Rum shop crawls

As the festival has become popular, the historical significance of the day for Montserratians is being sidelined for a more party atmosphere, similar to what you would experience at other St Patrick’s Day celebrations around the globe.  The commodification of the festival borders on devaluing and disrespecting Montserrat’s true cutural identity. 

Thus, traditionalists (like me) argue that we are dancing on the graves of our African ancestors by turning the festival into another carnival which also dilutes the annual Montserrat Carnival held in December. Plus, considering the history of the Irish in Montserrat, we are suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome and even bordering on cultural appropriation. The Irish were part of the White ruling classes practicing their version of Irish imperialism. The Irish had power in Montserrat. The first four governors in Montserrat were Irish (Anthony Brisket, Robert Osborne, Nathaniel Reade, and Anthony Brisket II).

Some say that considering how the Irish managed the island during the heyday of slavery, it is our right to take what is theirs and make our own. But at what price? Some with historical amnesia even argue the Gaelic Irish were not just indentured servants but also enslaved people. Hence, it is suitable for Montserrat to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day like the Irish. [🤦🏽‍♀️ Facepalm!]

Young boy riding a donkey at Saint Patrick's Day in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. A young boy riding a donkey on Saint Patrick’s Day in Montserrat. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

How to market Montserrat’s Saint Patrick’s Day Festival

The Irish arrived on the Caribbean island of Montserrat during the 17th century, and there is strong archeological evidence of their time on the island with the names of places and surnames.  However, the Irish influence and cultural legacy are increasingly exaggerated when promoting the Saint Patrick’s Day Festival.  Furthermore, just like the British, the Irish were oppressors on Montserrat and treated the enslaved Africans poorly.  Thus to have a Saint Patrick’s Day Festival that is increasingly mimicking others across the globe is disrespecting our ancestors and eroding our national identity. 

Montserrat’s Saint Patrick’s Day Festival should be developed and marketed in a more responsible way!  It is a dark tourism experience and so should not be branded as just another Saint Patrick’s Day Festival with a carnival-like atmosphere for revelry.   Thus the organizers of the festival should:

  1. Build out a website for the festival, providing historical context along with programming information.  
  2. Include on the official calendar only those events put on by the organizers and those that emphasize Montserrat’s history, culture, and heritage
  3. Create written and video content for posting on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and other social media channels that highlight the culture and heritage angle.   Here, it is critical to tap into the knowledge of the elders and local historians.   
  4. Ensure that all journalists/media outlets visiting the island for the festival are properly briefed about the island’s history.
  5.  Consider changing the festival’s name from Saint Patrick’s Day Festival to Heroes Day Festival. Heroes Day was actually part of the initial proposal for the day to become a national holiday; however, it was not adopted.  

Changing the festival’s name might make it less marketable, but considering the complex history of the Irish in Monserrat, it is the right thing to do. Allowing the festival to continue on its current path will lead to further cultural appropriation and confusion by visitors and locals.   

Montserrat needs more visitors to help rebound the tourism industry and economy still suffering from the Soufriere Hills Volcano eruption, but spinning a false narrative, including pushing the myth of the Black Irish and sidelining the real reason Saint Patrick’s Day in Montserrat became a public holiday, is a significant cause for concern.  To correct this, the Montserrat Tourism Division and festival organizers must do all they can to better educate attendees and, in particular, journalists about the real meaning of the festival. Again, they should also consider changing the name of the festival.  Failure to do so will further damage the national and cultural identity of the people of Montserrat.

Montserrat: St Patrick's Festival_Young man wear Shamrock Glasses. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. A young man wears Shamrock glasses at Montserrat’s St Patrick’s Day Festival. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

Further reading on the history and legacy of the Irish in Montserrat and the Caribbean

For those who want to learn more about the history of Montserrat and the Irish on the island starting in the seventeenth century, I recommend the following books:

  • Montserrat: History of A Caribbean Colony by Howard A. Fergus
  • St Patrick’s Day Celebration in Montserrat: A History by Howard A. Fergus
  • Acts of Assembly, Passed in the Island of Montserrat; From 1668, 10 1740, Inclusive 
  • If The Irish Ran The World: Montserrat, 1630 to 1730 by Donald Harman Akenson

Related Caribbean & Co. blog posts include:

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UPB at Antigua Carnival 2019.
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Welcome to Caribbean & Co. founded by Ursula Petula Barzey who enjoys traveling the Caribbean in search of the best cultural and food adventures, places to stay and live/work opportunities. Launched in 2014, Caribbean & Co. has won five travel media awards.

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