Black Irish...? A perspective on St Patrick's Day

The national flag of Montserrat

Happy St Patrick's Day from the beautiful Emerald Isle of the Caribbean…. Montserrat.

We are the only Caribbean island to celebrate 17th  of March as a national holiday. Indeed, apart from Ireland and the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador we are the only other country in the world where St Patrick’s Day is a national holiday. Having been born and raised in Montserrat this has been an integral part of my culture and heritage and even though I am not there now I still do celebrate as if I’m still there. Because this is not a traditional aspect of the UK culture, I usually get bombarded with questions with regards to being a black person, how are we connected to the Irish and why a small island in the Caribbean would celebrate this Irish traditional holiday.

Montserrat’s history has been heavily influenced by the Irish. By 1633 more than half the people on the island were Irish Catholics, which was the root of this strong influence. This can be discerned from passports being stamped on arrival and departure with a shamrock shaped stamp, to the Montserrat flag that while donning the British Union Jack also displays Ireland’s mythical goddess Eriu (the female figure and symbol of freedom for Ireland) carrying a golden harp.

Montserrat’s celebration of St Patrick's Day is unique to all other celebrations on the 17th  of March. Besides celebrating our early Irish influences, we also honour the enslaved people who rebelled and sacrificed their lives fighting against slavery in 1768. St Patrick's Day was observed due to the large Irish population who migrated to Montserrat not only as servants and political prisoners but also as tobacco and sugar plantation owners who owned slaves. The revolt was intended to coincide with the annual celebration. Whilst the revolt across the island failed due to the betrayal by an Irish woman who overheard the planning, we still celebrate the nine freedom fighters, including the leader, Cudjoe, for their bravery and sacrifice to this day.

Activities are a balancing act between commemoration and celebration and typically we have 10 days of celebration and activities. This usually starts with a ceremonial torch lighting at Cudjoe Head Village (so named because Cudjoe was beheaded in that area) and a freedom run. There are numerous events and festivals displaying the island's African and Irish heritage and love for soca, calypso and reggae music; topped off with Guinness and traditional Montserrat rum. Heritage Day is the 16th of March where the national dress is worn by children to schools and adults to work.

The national dress combines the colours of the Irish flag in the material with the design influenced from African slaves. This further represents the commemoration and influence from both our Irish side and the commemoration of the slaves and the freedom fighters. The celebrations end on St Patrick’s Day itself with the reconstruction of a slave village. This is when our traditional dress is worn, and huts and stalls are seen everywhere draped in the national colours, selling traditional food and drink – including our national dish Goat Water (which is a type of thick stew). Masquerade dancers are seen masquerading which stems from the African tradition of spiritual dancing with whips, and steps form Irish jigs all blend to bring flavour to the festivities. From 2004 with a matched grant from the Irish ministry of culture the Martin Healy band from Ireland has been performing in Montserrat during the festivities.

So, going back to the original question after all this knowledge sharing, I celebrate St Patrick's Day because it is a part of my culture and heritage. While I am not there it reminds me of where I have come from and I am proud to represent my home and my country. Maybe this St Patrick’s Day we can celebrate together over a pint of Guinness and share memories from my beautiful island. Or maybe I see you in Montserrat celebrating with us next year.

Happy St Patrick's Day!

A fashion illustration depicting men and women in green and white clothes