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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Ever wondered why Montserrat have a day off for St Patrick's Day too?
Today, Montserrat’s connection to an ‘Irish’ identity is strong but this has not always been the case.

CONTEMPORARY MONTSERRAT IS marketed globally as the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean”. This tagline inspires tourists and scholars to visualise a verdant, fertile paradise bolstered by genuine and lasting historic links to Ireland.

The island’s Irish connections have long been a source of interest for local residents and tourists alike, and over the past two decades government agencies, the tourism industry and local communities have made concerted efforts to bolster its Irish legacy and build upon perceived connections between present-day Montserrat and historic Irish communities.

Its most prominent example of these efforts is St Patrick’s Day, a national holiday that simultaneously commemorates the island’s Irish heritage and a failed uprising by Afro-Caribbean slaves and members of the island’s free black community on the same day in 1768.

The St Patrick’s holiday has grown into a week-long festival that attracts international tourists and acts as a major homecoming event for Montserrat’s diaspora community.

Today, Montserrat’s connection to an ‘Irish’ identity is strong but this has not always been the case.

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The Historical Irish Presence and Its Legacy

Montserrat’s Irish legacy is rooted in the demographics and social dynamics of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The island’s first generations of European settlers were mostly of Gaelic Irish or recently planted British ancestry, broadly defined as either native Irish and predominantly Roman Catholic or of English/Scottish planter origins and predominantly Protestant.

Distinctions between these two broad ethnic categories were, however, blurred by the presence of a smaller population of long-standing Anglo-Irish Roman Catholics who were connected to of the earliest plantation in Ireland from the twelfth century.

Some of the upper echelons of Montserrat’s society were Roman Catholics, and they found themselves affected at different times by anti-Catholic legislation in Great Britain and Ireland. Such legislation built on previous legal precedents to impose restrictions barring Irish Catholics from owning land, holding political office and occupying other positions of influence.

Although this legislation varied in its reach and impact outside Ireland, there is evidence of Irish land-owners changing religious affiliation because of political expediency, and of finding their interests in other areas of the British Empire forfeited, including their rights to make “nancial claims, maintain political positions and hold land, although this varied across time and space”.

Beginning in 1632, European settlers arrived in Montserrat from the neigh-
bouring islands of St Kitts and Nevis, as well as from other Caribbean islands, Ireland and England.

The Irish arrivals in Montserrat were part of a widespread population movement to the Caribbean during the seventeenth century, which had multiple causal factors. The upper echelons of both Gaelic and Anglo-Irish society were driven to the Caribbean by a desire to exploit and benefit from the profitable industrial, mercantile and maritime enterprises associated with the islands’ plantation economies.

The demand for labour was met in part by less fortunate Gaelic Irish who, in the wake of the Cromwellian wars and displacements, were either seeking economic opportunities in the Caribbean as indentured servants or had been involuntarily transported from Irish and English institutions.

The first Leeward Islands census, collected in 1678 by Governor William Stapleton (himself described as Irish), indicates that Montserrat had by far the largest concentration of Irish inhabitants in the Lesser Antilles.

Seventy percent of Montserrat’s white population self-identified as Irish, in comparison to much lower percentages of the populations on nearby St Kitts (10 percent), Nevis (23 percent) and Antigua (26 percent).

At least two-thirds of those who identified as Irish were poor farmers, labourers or indentured servants who lived in close proximity to one another in St Patrick’s parish, located in the southwest part of the island. By 1678 the island was also  home to Anglo-Irish and English settlers, a small number of other Europeans linked to trade interests, and African slaves.

Despite sharing a country of birth and broad cultural practices, Montserrat’s Irish were not a homogeneous or cohesive group during the plantation era.

During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, while the major-
ity of Montserrat’s Irish settlers struggled to live on small plots in the harsh environmental conditions of St Patrick’s parish, a small elite class of planters established sugar estates across the island.

The planters had emerged from among the island’s Irish residents, from settlers with Anglo-Irish or Gaelic Irish roots, and to a lesser degree from English and other European colonists.

With the introduction of the sugar industry came the importation of African slaves, tremendous wealth from sugar profits and escalating socioeconomic, racial and ethnic inequalities. Generally among the Irish planters, concerns about the profitability of sugar production took priority over other allegiances.

David Galway exhibited such political expediency when he signed a petition of loyalty to the British Crown in 1669, an act through which he socially distanced himself from his Irish political and Roman Catholic religious background in order to secure and expand business interests.

Among the Irish planters there is little to suggest that they asserted Irish ideological or cultural connections in order to achieve positions of power in the island’s plantation economy.

But there is more subtle evidence that Irish planters, including the Blakes, Lynches and Trants, moved to secure their wealth, elite status and personal legacies through strategic marriages between their families during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Spirit World / YouTube

Some Irish planter families also married within the wider circles of elite British military and administrative figures established in neighbouring islands.

For example,  William Stapleton secured his position as governor of the Leeward Islands within months of his marriage to the daughter of the governor of Nevis, Lieutenant-Colonel Russell.

There was a decrease in the island’s white population during the peak of eighteenth-century sugar production reflects in large part the increase of imported enslaved labour and accompanying absenteeism among the planter elite.

Decrease in the white population on the island 

Whereas in 1678, Montserrat’s population of 3,775 was 74 percent white, by the time of the 1729 census the island’s population of 6,998 was 16 percent white. Forty-six years later, in 1775, the population had nearly doubled in size to 11,148 and was 12 percent white.

However, though Irish planters and labourers were among those who left the island in large numbers, their departure was not as rapid as the census statistics might suggest. On the contrary, historian Frank Pitman observes that Irish settlers continued to arrive at the island in significant numbers at the same time as long-term Irish inhabitants of Montserrat were leaving.

The vast majority of unflattering references by the British Crown to Montserrat’s Irish were directed towards the lower-class communities of St Patrick’s parish. Though the government’s actions were intended to marginalise the region’s Irish residents, the effectiveness of its restrictions and commentaries is questionable.

While the maintenance of Irish identity among Montserrat’s lower classes served to preserve and reinforce links to fellow countrymen, it was also a reaction by Irish settlers to the prevalent anti-Irish (and anti-Catholic) feeling widespread throughout British society in the wake of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649–53).

The Irish from St Patrick’s and its neighbouring villages responded as a community to such sentiments by staging numerous overt acts of rebellion and resistance against the British authorities. In groups as large as two thousand they routinely assisted invading forces, fighting against the island’s English government and planter elite during the many minor foreign raids on the island that occurred before 1800.

The English commander-in-chief, William Willoughby, detailed how Montserrat had been robbed and plundered by “a party of rebellious and wicked people of the Irish nation”.

shutterstock_157681028 Shutterstock / Jiri Flogel Shutterstock / Jiri Flogel / Jiri Flogel

Irish symbolism on the island 

Presently the contemporary material culture of Montserrat displays “Irish” motifs and identifiers in abundance. The first symbol that visitors arriving in Montserrat encounter is the official passport stamp: a large shamrock printed in green ink. Shamrocks also proliferate on tourist information notices, shop signage, luggage tags and

Likewise, Montserrat’s national flag, based on the British Blue Ensign, has a Union flag in the top left corner and the national coat of arms – a harp-playing white colleen (“The Lady with the Harp”) – as its main feature. Her physical resemblance to the Irish personification of Erin is unmistakable. With iconography dating from at least 1909, the flag is one of the island’s most long-standing examples of material culture that displays Irish connections.

So, when did St Patrick’s Day celebrations begin?

Montserrat Public Library’s newspaper archive provides a chronicle of the recent mass adoption of St Patrick’s Day on the island, transforming it from an occasionally mentioned religious celebration to a national holiday and festival.

St Patrick’s Day became an officially designated national holiday in 1985, and since 1995 it has become a week-long festival that includes a parade in national dress, a road race called “the slave run”, dinners, dancing, pub crawls and public talks.

Before the early 1980s, St Patrick’s Day was observed primarily in St Patrick’s parish, an area in the southwest of the island where early historic-period Irish settlements were numerous and where continued connection to Irish facets of identity seemed to be most intensely felt. Traditionally the celebration was organised by and centred on the local Roman Catholic church.

Articles and editorials in the Montserrat Reporter during the 1980s and early 1990s champion the push towards nationalisation of the holiday. A 1995 editorial included a complaint that the “national affair” of St Patrick’s Day needed to be better centrally organised and controlled.

Public holiday 

Presently the island is one of the few places outside Ireland where the date is officially marked as a national holiday.

The earliest newspapers archived on Montserrat date from the early 1950s. They make no mention of St Patrick’s Day until 1958. A newspaper report from 1966 states: “During the Royal visit of February 19 references were made to the Irish connection of Montserrat, and is understood that several correspondents on the Royal Tour were seeking information on the matter. The newspaper uses this opportunity to note that St Patrick’s Day – “the national day of Ireland” – would occur the following week.

By the mid-1970s, clear attempts to reinvigorate Montserrat’s link with Ireland, and thus St Patrick’s Day, appear in a variety of sources. The newspapers at the time reveal strong left-wing, anti-colonial politics among the public intellectuals on the island.

In the late 1970s to mid-1980s, the newspapers question accepted discourses of Irish history on the island and the role of the Irish as slave-owners, painting them as vicious and cruel as their British counterparts. Public discussions questioned whether the celebration should be called “St Patrick’s Day” or “Heroes’ Day”, and these continued throughout the early 1980s.

Alongside the growing anti-colonial and civil rights political rhetoric evident in Montserratian newspapers, the 1970s also witnessed a move towards engaging with the historic Irish nature of Montserrat as part of locally based tourism

By 1979 a tourist policy document in the Montserrat Library collection lists, as its point “building up the ‘Irish Connection’ more”.


Seven years later, in a less than subtle 1986 newspaper headline, the Montserrat Times exclaims: “Irish Connection Pays Off”. The report links increasing tourist revenues from the Irish-American (rather than Irish) market to the recent adoption of St Patrick’s Day as a national holiday in 1985.

mnispirit / YouTube

Perhaps the most visible invention of the present-day St Patrick’s Day festivities is the national dress, which is ubiquitous during contemporary celebrations.

Despite its centrality to the festivities, this national costume is of even more recent vintage than the national holiday of St Patrick’s Day. Announcement of a competition to design a national dress first appears in the island’s newspapers in 1987.

The creation and adoption of the national dress over the next decade followed a specific agenda to promote the multi-ethnic origins of the island, referred to in 1988 as “roots awareness”. The rules for the competition emphasised that the “African–Irish/European–Arawak” origins of the population should be included. The design, now hugely popular, was formalised in 2002: a green, white and orange tartan (a design that has Scottish, Welsh and Irish historic precedents).

The pattern is promoted as symbolising all of the island’s cultural roots, and the overall costume design aims to connect the island’s contemporary Caribbean identities. For example, its components – a tartan skirt and white blouse for women – are similar in form to national costumes worn on other Caribbean islands. The green in Montserrat’s plaid is meant to symbolise African heritage, while its combination of green, white and orange clearly references the Irish tricolour.

This edited article, written by Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski, is part of a chapter ‘Historic and contemporary Irish identity on Montserrat, the ‘Emerald Isle of the Caribbean’ in Alison Donnell, Maria McGarrity & Evelyn O’Callaghan ‘s book: Caribbean Irish Connections for University of West Indies Press.


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Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski
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