The only country outside of Ireland that celebrates ST. Patrick’s Day as a national holiday is the petite isle of Montserrat in the midst of the Eastern Caribbean. The British Overseas Territory’s flag is emblazoned with the Irish Harp and the words Erin, with an obligatory Union Jack in a corner. Pass through customs and your passport is stamped with a green Irish Clover. Today, common surnames on Montserrat include Bodkin, Browne, Blake, Meade, O’Gara, Darcy, Ryan, Dean, French, Joyce, Kerwin, Sweeney, Riley, Driscoll, Castle, Lynch, Martin, Morrison, and Skerritt. Numerous island geographic locales pay homage to the motherland such as Cork Hill, potato Hill, Roche’s Mountain, Sweeney’s Well, Kinsale and Delvins and long vanished Irish sugar plantations are remembered as Farrell, Riley, Dyer, Molyneux, and Lee.
How Did the Irish Get There?
Emigration from Ireland to the lush green Caribbean commenced in earnest on the heels of the defeat at the Battle of Kinsale near Cork in 1601. Thousands of disgruntled and disenfranchised Irish Catholics packed their bags in hopes of a better life in the Caribbean where they set up shop as planters, For many it was brutal indentured servitude on St. Kitts and other Caribbean islands for 5 to 7 years work in exchange for their ultimate freedom and the hope of someday becoming landholders. The next rush of Irish Catholic emigrants arrived under duress. They were unwilling deportees, transported following Oliver Cromwell’s genocidal invasion of Ireland in 1648 and subsequently even more under Cromwell’s son’s watch. Departing from Cork and Kerry to Wexford and Galway, Clare and Donegal to Tipperary, Waterford, Drogheda, and Westmeath. Some were literal slaves while other toiled as indentured servants.
Eventually clashes with the ant-Popish Cromwellian influenced British Colonial power structure on St. Kitts, Nevis and other Caribbean Crown colonies led many free Irish to migrate to Montserrat in hopes of opportunity and religious freedom. By the mid-seventeen hundreds, Montserrat census records listed more than 1,500 Irish, 700 English, 52 Scotts, and 1,000 West African slaves. Many eventually became successful planters and eventually became slaveholders themselves. Not coincidentally, the only slave revolt recorded on the island was planned for St.Patrick’s Day, as the slaves were confident their overlords would be three sheets to the wind from too much Guinness. It almost worked but some one snitched off the plot. Through intermarriage, and mass baptisms of slaves given their Irish master’s last name en masse proliferated Irish Surnames on the island.
Listen to the interview on the Lowell Thomas Award winning travel show, Journeys of Discovery with Tom Wilmer a weekly featured podcast on NPR.ORG.
Watch the RTE television feature on the Black Irish of Montserrat: