By Michael Jarvis
Culture, history and identity clash in Montserrat as the island marks the anniversary one of the Caribbean’s first slave uprisings, celebrate the feast of an Irish saint, and lay claim to Irish connections.
A two-week festival, advertised as ‘Montserrat’s St Patrick’s Festival – Celebrating Our Afro-Irish Heritage’ is fast becoming the island’s pre-eminent cultural exposition.
The schism revolves around how the festival is labelled and promoted.
Montserrat’s government, tourism planners, and the festival’s organisers have sought to capitalise on the novelty of Montserrat being the only place outside Ireland that marks the Irish St Patrick’s day as a holiday.
That focus on ‘Irishness’ is a source of bemusement to many who question the appropriateness of this, especially as it clashes with the anniversary of a slave rebellion.
On March 17, 1768, while Irish plantation overseers, along with English and Scottish landowners, would have been feasting and celebrating the Irish St Patrick’s Day, enslaved Africans in Montserrat were taking up positions to rise up in arms against them.
The plan had been fine-tuned for months but, alas, the plot was leaked.
Historical accounts differ as to how this came about, but long-held suggestions of an inside betrayal are now being questioned as emerging evidence is pointing to the plotters being overheard by an Irish woman.
Nine enslaved Africans deemed to be the ringleaders were brutally executed; their heads placed on poles as a gruesome warning and deterrent to others.
It’s this ultimate sacrifice, martyrdom and the daring quest for freedom that a growing number of Montserratians – including this writer – are demanding to be given precedence over notions of an Irish connection.
An appeal by some locals of African stock to some semblance of family connection via a refrain of “Irish-in-me-blood,” plus misunderstood displaying of symbolisms portraying elements of ‘Irish connections’ are inappropriate and insensitive to the occasion.
In the first place, leprechauns and unicorn do not exist (never did), and shamrocks do not grow in Montserrat, despite its outline being stamped in visitors passports.
March 17 – the Irish St Patrick’s Day – only became a holiday in present-day Montserrat in 1984.
It took vigorous campaigning by local academics led by University of the West Indies historian and professor, Sir Howard Fergus – who had researched the 1768 rebellion – his compatriot academic Professor George Irish, and other community leaders who brought it to prominence.
Through their pioneering and lobbying efforts, the anniversary was declared a public holiday and has now become a fixture on the local calendar.
Recently a two-week festival has been built up around it by enterprising and commercially-minded event organisers. The event has grown hugely in popularity, especially with diaspora-based Montserratians who return in droves each year as the festival occurs in the low tourist season when international airfares are much cheaper.
But the festival now risks being a victim of its own success by losing sight of its original intention.
There is no doubt it provides a welcome and important economic infusion, but the heavy emphasis supposedly targeting Irish tourism is misplaced. The Irish hardly visit anyway.
From its previous predominantly African and Caribbean flavour, the event has recently seen an increasingly heavy – often-times gratuitous – infusion of Irish symbolism mainly by the descendants of those whose memories the event is meant to honour.
As the debate intensifies, there’s been some pushback from black Montserratians with obvious or scientifically-proven evidence of trickles ‘Irish in their blood.’ It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how that came about. But actual knowledge of Ireland or things Irish by the most of African-descendant Montserrratians is, well…distant.
There is no doubt space to mark Montserrat’s very visible Irish past.
It’s undeniable that the long Irish presence – from 1632 until they had gradually left the island following the abolition of slavery into the start of the 20th century – has made an impact.
That legacy has endured in the names of most places and with the majority black population on the island; the descendants of the enslaved Africans who were given, or otherwise had adopted, the names of their Irish, English and Scottish captors.
This is not unique to Montserrat. Similar patterns are visible across the Caribbean.
The enslaved Africans were forced to conform to European slave-owners’ religious and social norms, while much of their original African practices and culture were almost obliterated.
In Montserrat and elsewhere in the Caribbean there has been an ongoing effort to claw that back and learn more about the islanders’ African heritage and celebrate their ancestors. The objective is to rebalance the one-sidedness of the European indoctrination since the days of slavery.
And that was the intention of the founders of the modern-day March 17 (St Patrick’s Day) holiday in Montserrat; to commemorate the ancestors of Afro-Montserratians in their quest for freedom on that date in 1768.
As the festival evolves as a uniquely Montserratian event, it needs to ensure that it does not lose sight of its ethos as the expense of commercialisation – albeit noting its economic importance.
Even how the event is labelled and branded is in dire need of a rethink. Montserrat Heritage and Reunion Festival or something along that line seems more fitting.
Emerald Fest is also gaining traction. That’s how the international reggae Luciano referred to the festival when he promoted his appearance in 2018.
Also evident is the increasingly African-Caribbean cultural expression in music, stage productions, the written word, featured cuisine and fashion.
The Ghanaian kente is now showing a strong presence alongside the madras; a plaid pattern of cheap fabric imported from India by the then plantation owners for their enslaved to wear.
Rather surprisingly the madras is now Montserrat’s national dress, a ‘pattern’ noted elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Until recently there was also an African Music Festival indigenous African artistes. Disappointingly that has been off the calendar for the past few years.
And it’s also inspiring a thirst for more historical research and Afro-Caribbean cultural expression.
The debate which has ‘erupted’ (to use a volcano analogy) around the Montserrat March festival with its discordant African heritage and Irish connection tags, however, does not suggest any rift between Montserratians and the Irish.
This is an issue between Montserratians.
But, in terms of a cultural connection, March 17 in Montserrat and the festival now leading up to it, must be less about the Irish saint called, Patrick, less about notions of Irish connections, and more (if not all) about Montserrat’s African connection – for historical and cultural reasons.
To commemorate an Irish connection, St Stephen’s Day is available.
Also known also as Wren’s Day, it’s a major Irish holiday on Dec 26, Boxing Day…and it falls in the middle of Montserrat’s other major festival.