There’s a place they call the Emerald Isle, where the lush green landscapes are home to families with names like O’Gara, Darcy, and Ryan. They live in towns called Cork Hill, Kinsale, and Sweeney’s Well, and they stamp a green shamrock on your passport anytime you visit, whether it’s for their famed St. Patrick’s celebration or to experience the island’s warm, tropical climate…
I’m obviously talking about Montserrat, a small Caribbean island with a centuries-old connection to Ireland. Here’s the strange, dark, and ultimately beautiful history of this fascinating place:
1. Back in 1678, more than half of the island’s population was Irish.
Oliver Cromwell exiled thousands of Irish laborers to the Caribbean during the 17th century. Many of them were criminals serving time; others volunteered or were forced into indentured servitude, trading years of sunburn and abuse for the promise of a small piece of land.
Many of them eventually flocked to Montserrat, which was under French dominion at the time and had gained a reputation as a safe haven for Irish Catholics.
2. While the Irish at first were treated like any other slave or forced laborer in the Caribbean, they soon started gaining status in their new home on Montserrat.
“The Irish probably thought, ‘I’ve been an indentured laborer, I’ve been treated as a slave myself, I want to be prosperous.’ And they looked at the wealthy at the time and saw owning slaves as a status symbol,” Graham Clifford, an Irish journalist who spent some time in Montserrat, explained in an interview with Upworthy.
3. Over the next century, the Montserratian people got, well, pretty fed up with it.
Which is understandable as frustrating as it is when some foreign empire shows up and forces you into slavery and claims your land and resources as its own, it’s even more insulting when the other “lesser humans” that they brought with them start pushing you around as well.
4. So the Montserratians staged a revolt against the Irish majority on March 17, 1768.
As Sir Howard Fergus, a historian and politician as well as the first Montserratian to be knighted by the British Empire, explained in an email to Upworthy, “The day was strategically chosen for planter lords would have been celebrating at the Governors residence in tipsy glory, it being St. Patricks Day.”
5. But someone leaked the uprising plan, and the slaves were swiftly punished, leaving nine dead and 30 more banished from Montserrat.
OK, maybe it’s not the most flattering legacy.
Of course, the Irish weren’t the first oppressed group to take it out on the next oppressed group on the oppression ladder. And they definitely weren’t the last. Still, that legacy remains a major part of Montserrat in the national colors, in the harp on the country’s crest, and in the names and places all across the island.
6. It wasn’t until 1971 that the rest of the world began to take notice of this particular bit of colonial history.
Sir Howard Fergus had published an article on the St. Patrick’s Day uprising, inspiring the island’s lone secondary school to celebrate the unnamed martyrs of the day with a history project one that ended up attracting national attention.
Over the next few years, this trend of cultural education continued. But eventually, the idea came up to exploit this little bit of Irishness for the purposes of tourism (and maybe for some LOLs).
7. “It was a short step to carnivalising St. Patricks Day and making it to a week-long festival rivalling Christmas,” Sir Fergus said.
“Montserratians are not so much celebrating Ireland. It is a festival of fun with a tincture of Irishness thrown in.”
Still, Sir Fergus clarifies: “Some are however kicking and screaming because they think the original purpose of the holiday was to celebrate the heroes of St. Patricks Day.”
8. But recently, some efforts have been made to reconnect the Irish and the Montserratians, to share their cultures and their histories.
Clifford learned about Montserrat in the mid-’90s, and years later arranged a trip to the island with the help of Father George Aggers, an Irish priest who worked with a local parish on the island. They set up a Skype call between the Montserratian children at St. Augustine’s School and his own children’s classroom at Gaelscoil de hde in Fermoy, County Cork, allowing the children to learn about each other’s languages and cultures and connect over their shared heritage and history with March 17.
“I wanted to use the links I have as a way of bringing together people from these distant but strangely familiar communities,” Clifford told the Irish Independent.
9. “They do obviously play up the Irish connection for tourism,” Clifford said. “But it’s still there. It’s a mad, random connection.”
A Irish-Montserratian music and dance celebration. Photo by Graham Clifford, used with permission.
History is full of ugly details. But we can remember the past while building toward the future. We just have to reach out and connect.
Every culture has its shameful secrets and in the case of Montserrat and Ireland, those stories are layered in colonial complications. What matters most is that we learn from those mistakes and celebrate the cultures and heroes that came from them.
Here’s the first installment of a documentary about the Irish connection to Montserrat: