There is green everywhere. But the steel drums and masked dancers, the goat water stew, and the active volcano all serve as a reminder that this is not the typical St. Patrick’s Day.
Just south of Antigua, Montserrat is that increasingly rare Caribbean realm without resorts and massive cruise ships. Ask any of its nearly 5,000 residents about the character of their island, and they’ll likely point out that, here, lost phones are taken to the radio station to be reunited with owners. People leave keys in cars, and doors unlocked. And they host a 10-day St. Patrick’s festival. Montserrat is the only place outside of Ireland to celebrate it as a national holiday.
It would be easy to suspect this remote island of strategically capitalising on the lucrative business of the Irish diaspora. At the least, it’s unusual for a British territory to use a shamrock passport stamp or to sport a flag with Ireland’s mythical goddess Eriu carrying her golden harp.
While it does bring in significant revenue, Montserrat’s St. Patrick’s festival doesn’t pander to stereotypes or merely replicate American-style revelry. Here, the holiday weaves together two heritages, acknowledging early Irish influence while honouring the enslaved people who rebelled against it.
“This is a very unique type of St. Patrick’s Day,” says Warren Solomon, Montserrat’s director of tourism. “I don’t think anybody will come here and say, well, we’ve done it in Boston or New York before, so we know exactly what to expect.”
This annual cultural gathering, even virtually, remains as relevant as ever in a pandemic. It underpins the ongoing, complex national questions of identity in Montserrat. Considerations of who they are and want to be will continue to drive decisions around their goal of financial independence from Britain by 2035 and of growing sustainably in a mass tourism market.
Originally inhabited by the Arawak and Carib, Montserrat was named by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and was periodically occupied by the French before becoming a British territory in 1632. The governor of St. Kitts dispatched British and Irish immigrants to colonise this nearby territory.
After Cromwell’s harsh conquest of Ireland in 1649, Irish undesirables were deported and sent to work on Caribbean sugar and tobacco plantations. The layered social strata of British and Irish landowners, indentured Irish, and enslaved Africans was a powder keg across the region.
While the indentured Irish could work their way to land ownership and rights after seven years, enslaved Africans could not. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1768, a group of enslaved people planned to take advantage of the plantation owners’ and overseers’ holiday drunkenness and revolt across the island. But word got out and the rebellion failed. Nine rebels, including leader Cudjoe, were hanged.
Modern St. Patrick’s Day activities in Montserrat are an often uneasy balancing act between commemoration and celebration. In recent years, the festival started with a ceremonial torch lighting at Cudjoe’s Head village. Festivalgoers could hike to historical sites through rainforest with James “Scriber” Daley, Montserrat’s famed “bird whisperer”; take a guided boat tour around the Soufrière Hills volcano exclusion zone; and then drink until dawn at Leprechaun’s Revenge, the annual pop-up party under the stars.
As the festival expanded, so did the controversy. Some consider the events soulless and inauthentic partying. Older generations are vigilant against forgetting slavery’s impact on the island’s culture.
Masquerading, an Afro-Caribbean tradition of spiritual dancing and coded communication, still highlights this fragile co-existence in St. Patrick’s celebrations. More than an irresistible beat, the masquerades share messages of both personal dignity and cloaked mocking. Overt references include the dancer with the whip, hats shaped like Catholic bishops’ mitres, and steps from Irish jigs.
Vernaire Bass, head of planning and production at the Montserrat Arts Council, explains the less obvious elements of traditional masquerade costumes: “The ribbons and the lace and glass, those would have just been scraps of what they were able to find or take from the masters’ house. That’s what a masquerade is, trying to be someone that we’re not.”
Bass, who identifies her great-grandmother as the daughter of a slave driver, attests to the complexity of identity. “I’m with the slaves, but I think by discrediting the Irish side of us, we’re also discrediting ourselves. Because you can’t love one element of yourself and not love the others,” she says.
“Typically, the Irish generation that we come into contact with today celebrate us and are happy that we celebrate them,” says Bass. “So we should move forward with that, not ignoring the past but embracing the future.”
The pandemic put both celebrations and debates on pause. Tourism was in full swing as 2020 began, with 2019’s arrival numbers crossing 20,000 for the first time since 1995. But with visitors already on the island for St. Patrick’s Day in 2020, the main celebrations were shut down minutes before kickoff.
Montserrat remained closed to visitors for most of the year, only recently launching a remote worker program for those who want to retreat to forested hills and black-sand beaches. But closed hasn’t meant idle. Plans are underway for a newly designed jetty, airport tower, and volcano interpretive centre. The local scuba shop continues restorative reef work and teaches swim lessons for youth and adults.
Everybody had to deal with something they’ve never dealt with before,” says Solomon, the tourism director. “But there was no sense of panic, and that goes back to the resiliency of the people of the island. We’ve been down the tragic road before.”
The “tragic road” was the formative modern disaster of the Soufrière Hills volcanic explosions that began in August of 1995. For years, the island was beset with eruptions and earthquakes, killing 19 at its violent peak in June 1997 and burying the evacuated capital of Plymouth. More than half of Montserrat’s population emigrated.
Today the lower two-thirds of Montserrat, including Plymouth, is an exclusion zone for inhabitants, accessible only with certified tours. Boat operatives cruise past rooftops and a church’s steeple protruding from the volcano’s now solidified pyroclastic flows. Bus tours visit the scattering of once everyday household items on Parliament Street left behind in the evacuation.
Cherise Aymer, head of Montserrat’s tourism marketing unit, hopes plans to seek UNESCO World Heritage status for Plymouth are successful. “It has a special part in our hearts because it was our hub. The memory is quite strong. To be able to go back to Plymouth was a big thing for Montserratians. To see my old school, it really touched a deep part of me,” says Aymer.
“There’s still a lot of people who haven’t been back to Plymouth, even though they’ve come from the diaspora to visit Montserrat,” she continues. “They haven’t been back to clean up because it’s hard to see it that way. But there are others who want to be able to put closure to that.”
Past the psyche of violence and disaster, Montserratians embrace their home’s natural beauty and connectedness and strive to keep that relaxed character as they move toward the growth of sustainable tourism.
“Our friends will come and ask, ‘So what is there to do?’’’ says Emmy Aston of Scuba Montserrat. “[Montserrat] is slowing down to have a beer and conversation at a bar on the side of the road. It’s driving up to Garibaldi for this amazing view of the sea and Plymouth. Or saying let’s go visit our friend Charles at In God We Trust bar in St. Johns. It’s not ziplining and that kind of stuff. It’s the little things.”
While Montserrat’s St. Patrick’s Day breaks the traditional Irish mold, visitors will find their luck in the island’s year-round resiliency and warmth.
“You can go anywhere here and you’re not in the wrong place,” says Scuba Montserrat co-owner Andrew Myers. “People welcome you.”