How Irish is Montserrat (The Black Irish)
by Brian McGinn
IT IS A BRITISH Colony that calls itself the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean.
A carved green shamrock adorns the centre gable of Government House, overlooking
the Union Jack that flutters from a nearby flagpole. It observes St Patrick's
Day with one public holiday, and three months later the Queen's Birthday
This island of incongruous and surprising contrasts is one of the Leeward
Islands of the Eastern Caribbean. To its south lies the French island of
Guadeloupe. To the north are Antigua, Nevis and St Christopher (St Kitts),
all former British colonies. With fewer than 12,000 inhabitants on its 39
square miles, Montserrat has long ago learned to survive in the shadow of
its larger and more populous neighbours.
At Blackburne Airport, an immigration officer named Murraine smiles when
he learns that a visitor named Moran is exploring the island's Irish roots.
He and all his family are Irish, too, the Black official tells his somewhat
sceptical guest, as he endorses his Irish passport with Montserrat's immigration
stamp: a green shamrock.
An Afro-Caribbean island, whose population is 95 per cent Black, flaunting
itself as Irish? Surely this is a tourism scheme, a clever gimmick to distinguish
tiny Montserrat from a dozen sun-baked and surf-splashed Caribbean competitors?
A glance at the map begins to dispel such cynicism. Familiar names mark
the locations of geographical features: Cork Hill, Roche's Mountain, Sweeney's
Well and Carty's Ghaut, or ravine. Irish place names, from Kinsale (County
Cork) to Delvins (County Westmeath) dot the island. The road from the airport,
on the east, to the capital Plymouth, on the west, runs a gauntlet of names
- Farrel, Riley, Dyer, Molyneux, Lee - marking the location of former sugar
The telephone directory helps set remaining doubts to rest. Page after page,
Irish names parade in seemingly endless columns: 132 families of Allens,
91 Ryans, 81 Daleys, 68 Tuitts, 57 Farrells, 42 Rileys, 38 Skerretts, 35
Sweeneys, 28 Brownes, 26 Roches, 19 Lynches, 16 Cartys and 12 Kirwans.
Other Irish names have undergone Caribbean transformations: O'Gara, for
example, has become O'Garro (38 families). Could the Cabeys (39) be (Mac)Cabes,
and the Brades (14) be Bradys? Now, the immigration officer's chance remark
takes on a special genealogical significance. Is Murraine (18) a Montserratian
rendition of O'Muireáin, the Irish Murrin? Or could it derive from
O'Moráin, the Irish Moran? Perhaps the Montserratian Murraine and
the Irish Moran are long-lost cousins?
The Irish Indies
Of all the areas settled by seventeenth-century Irish exiles, the Caribbean
was the one they came closest to making their own. Here, the Irish were
not confined to the English islands. Irish exile communities in Spain sent
priests, soldiers and administrators to Cuba, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo.
From France, Irish merchants, missionaries and planters went to Guadeloupe,
Martinique and Saint Domingue - modern Haiti. Even today, visitors to the
Dutch island of Aruba can find three pages of Kellys in the telephone directory.
No one, including the Kellys themselves, knows how they ended up there.
While individual Irishmen might rise to prominence in the French and Spanish
Caribbean, the British West Indies - Barbados, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands
- attracted Irish men and women in significant numbers. Many did not come
voluntarily. In Irish history and folklore, some of these sunny islands
evoke dark memories.Between 1650 and 1660, Oliver Cromwell's government
used the West Indies as a dumping ground and penal colony. The victims of
Cromwellian transportation ranged from political and military prisoners
to anyone who might burden the public purse: orphans, widows and the unemployed.
Although numerous English and Scottish subjects were deported, the harsh
and often vindictive treatment of Irish exiles in Barbados has left a bitter
Deportation was only one part of the story. Irish men and women had been
freely emigrating to the West Indies for at least a quarter century before
the Cromwellian cruelties. As indentured servants, they contracted to work
for a period, usually four or five years, in return for free passage and
the promise of land or cash at the end of their term.
Although the promises often went unfulfilled, the rumour that St Kitts paid
£10 in 'freedom dues' proved irresistible. By the 1630s, boatloads
of servants regularly left Cork ports for the West Indies. 'Here', an English
recruiting agent wrote from Kinsale in August 1636, 'all are inclined for
St Christophers'. Women, he added, were 'readier to go than the men'.
In 1643, Fr Mathew O'Hartegan, an Irish Jesuit then stationed in Paris,
reported that he had received a petition from 20,000 Irish exiles in St
Kitts and nearby islands. Fr Aubrey Gwynn, a twentieth century Jesuit historian
and expert on the West Indies, concluded in his 1929 study that 6,000 -
with roughly 3,000 on St Kitts - was a more realistic estimate. Even the
lower figure, wrote Fr Gwynn, showed that 'the emigration of Irish Catholics
to the West Indies had already attained large numbers before ever Cromwell
began his policy of forced deportation'.
By the third quarter of the seventeenth century, Montserrat had become the
most Irish island in the West Indies. A 1678 census shows a vibrant community
of almost 1,900 Irish men, women and children. Family names suggest that
most came from County Cork, with smaller contingents from Clare, Donegal,
Galway, Tipperary, Waterford, Westmeath and Wexford.
Numerically larger Irish colonies had already existed on other English islands.
In 1669, for example, 8,000 Irish were reported in Barbados. Jamaica, captured
from Spain in 1655, also attracted large numbers of Irish. But nowhere else
did the Irish constitute a verifiable majority of the population. Even on
Barbados, 8,000 Irish would have constituted fewer than four out of every
ten whites, and one seventh of the island's total 1673 population.
On Montserrat, seven of every 10 whites were Irish. Comparable 1678 census
figures for the other Leeward Islands were: 26 per cent Irish on Antigua;
22 per cent on Nevis; and 10 per cent on St Christopher. With Montserrat's
slaves added in, the Irish still made up more than half of that Island's
The Montserrat Irish were, to an unprecedented extent, ruled by Irishmen:
at least six of the island's seventeenth-century governors were Irish. The
census was commissioned by Sir William Stapleton of Thurlesbegg, County
Tipperary, a former governor of Montserrat and then governor of the Leeward
The reasons why Montserrat became so Irish are still debated by historians.
Among the factors suggested are over-population in nearby islands, ethnic
prejudices, political disputes, and even linguistic differences. From an
early date, it seems clear, English authorities looked on remote Montserrat
as a safety valve to diffuse tensions among their West Indian subject.
Religious conflict was a key factor, says Rev. Francis C. Mackin, SJ, of
Boston College, a student of Montserrat's church history. The earliest surviving
report on Montserrat, dated January 1634, described a population of Irish
Catholics rejected by Virginia on account of their religion. 'Montserrat',
says Fr Mackin, 'was a haven of religious liberty for Irish Catholics in
the New World before Maryland was a haven for English Catholics.'
Events in Ireland spurred the growth of Montserrat's Catholic population.
The Rising of 1641, and the subsequent warfare that brought Cromwell to
Ireland in 1649, increased tension in distant St Kitts. 'It is said', wrote
Fr Dermot O'Dwyer from Paris in October 1642, 'at Christopher Island the
Irish and English hath great emotions'. Evidence that these emotions caused
an Irish exodus from St Kitts can be found in the Portuguese archives. In
a petition dated 1643, an Irish captain named Peter Sweetman asked the King
of Portugal to let 400 Irish Catholics from St Kitts move to Brazil.
'Harassed by the English heretics on the island of S. Christovao', Sweetman
wrote, he and his fellow Irishmen desired to live as Catholics under Portuguese
protection. To eliminate 'new uncertainties on account of religion', said
Sweetman, the St Kitts Irish preferred not to accept 'a whole island which
the governor of S. Christovao gave them'. This island was almost certainly
It is not known whether any Irish moved to Brazil. Some, probably most,
accepted the offer of Antigua's governor, Sir Thomas Warner. 'Wrangling
and rioting had so become the order of the day', historian Vincent T. Harlow
wrote of St Kitts, 'that Warner at last determined to get rid of the unruly
elements. Accordingly in 1643 a party of Irish Roman Catholics was settled
at Montserrat, and other religious malcontents were sent to colonize Antigua'.
Servants or Slaves?
Modern Montserratians are often bemused by well-meaning visitors who ask
if they are descendants of 'Irish slaves'. Their confusion does not stem
from ignorance of their history. But they know, as their visitors often
do not, that an Irish name does not always imply Irish descent. Some of
their ancestors, who really were African slaves, worked on estates owned
by men with names like Farrell, Galwey, Riley and Roche. When the slaves
were finally emancipated in 1834, some took the family names of their former
Irish owners.The meeting of African and Irish has left racial and psychological
residues that defy casual assumption or analysis. In addition to honoring
St Patrick on 17 March, Montserratians also honour slaves executed after
an abortive revolt on 17 March 1768. A failed rebellion, betrayed by a talkative
participant, is something any Irish history student can understand. In this
case, the targets of the slave plot were Irish planters who, had everything
gone right, might have been too inebriated to resist.
The vast majority of Irish who came to Montserrat never become planters.
Most were indentured servants, often bound to a fellow-Irishman for their
contracted term. Of the 2,682 whites who lived on Montserrat in 1678, 1,644
were bonded or indentured. Since 70 per cent of the population was then
Irish, it is reasonable to assume that 1,000 or more of those servants were
US historian Winthrop D. Jordan has explained that 'servitude, no matter
how long, brutal and involuntary, was not the same thing as perpetual slavery'.
Slaves served for life, and their status was inherited by their children.
For those servants who died from overwork and maltreatment before their
terms ended, the distinction was meaningless. But those who did survive
were free to leave or stay, and to raise families without condemning their
children to slavery. According to historian Abbot E. Smith, there is no
record of any white man serving in perpetuity in any English colony.
Apart from the planter families, many of the remaining 1,038 whites were
former servants. These free men and women who, having served out their time,
scraped out a livelihood as tradesmen or small tobacco, cotton or indigo
farmers. Montserrat, perhaps because of its reputed tolerance toward Catholics,
is believed to have attracted former servants from the other English islands.
Once established, freemen invested their earnings the same way the big planters
did; by buying slaves. In 1678, it is estimated that only three planters
owned more that 60 slaves. But Cornelius Bryan and David Kelly had four
each, and John Keagry, Edmond Kelly, Luke Garney and Darby Keneely had three
apiece. Mortogh Saghroe (Sugrue), Robert Goold and Turlough Hart had two
each, Phillip Riley, Fynnen Mahoney, Cornelius Murnane, Dennis Tynan and
Thomas Ryan held one slave each.
The Protestant North
'No people', says Montserratian Cherrie Taylor, 'can come in those numbers
without leaving a legacy'. But beyond the obvious place and family names,
the precise nature of Montserrat's Irish heritage proves difficult to pin
down. For Ms Taylor, a retired civil servant and newspaper columnist, the
Irish legacy lives on in the northern part of the island, among a group
of related families with names like Allen, Daly, Gibbons, Ryan and Sweeney.
Allegedly lighter-skinned than other Montserratians, these 'Black Irish'
are said to retain such Irish traits as hospitality to strangers, clannishness,
independence, rebelliousness, and hostility to outside interference.
Ms. Taylor's belief is echoed in the writings of US anthropologist John
C. Messenger, who studied the northern communities in the 1960s. 'Families
bearing Black Irish surnames', wrote Dr Messenger, 'are numerous and inbred
and proud of their Irish ancestry; they intermarry out of a sense of tradition
and to preserve their light skin colour, which is a status symbol in Montserrat
as elsewhere in the West Indies'.
Historian Howard A. Fergus of Montserrat questions Messenger's thesis. 'The
fair-skinned coloureds in the north', he writes, have been labelled "black"
and "hybridized" Irish on inconclusive evidence'. Some, claims
Fergus, could be descendants of Scots or Englishmen. Dr Fergus also points
out that the northerners of St Peter's Parish have never had a Catholic
church, suggesting that 'if their ancestors were Irish, they were Protestant
But historical records reveal that Catholics were once the majority - though
an unchurched one - in this traditionally Anglican parish. In 1724, pastor
James Cruickshank reported '20 Protestant (and) 40 Popish families in St
Peter's'. The basic necessities of registering births, marriages and deaths
may eventually have drawn the northern Catholics into St Peter's Anglican
Nowadays, Celtic crosses in the cemetery of St Peter's Anglican church carry
such names as Blake and Furlonge. Other headstones memorialize members of
the Allen, Fergus, Hogan, Kirnon, Lee, Molyneaux, Neale, O'Garro, Skerrett
and Sweeney families.
Whatever their religious beliefs, northerners with Irish surnames have no
doubts about their ancestry. In March, 1992, the Emerald Community Singers,
a Montserratian Folk and dance ensemble, performed in an 'Irish Roots Festival'
sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC An audience member
inquired whether any of the musicians was of Irish descent. 'We're all Irish',
replied several female singers in unison, as they ticked off their names:
Allen, Murraine and Ryan.
The Catholic South
If place names can signify Irishness, southern Montserrat should be the
most Gaelic corner of the island. South of Plymouth lies the seventeenth
century town of Kinsale, perhaps named by nostalgic exiles for their last
sight of Ireland. From Kinsale, the road winds past Broderick's and Reid's
Hill estates to the village of St Patrick's. Above the village, the windmill
and boiling house of Galway's Estate recall the presence of the Galway family,
seventeenth-century sugar planters from Cork.
In a 1724 report on religious affiliations in Montserrat, an Anglican minister
wrote of St Patrick's: 'Never had a (Protestant) Church nor Minister. Inhabited
by Irish Papists'. Today, St Patrick's remains the most Catholic area of
Montserrat. In the village's church of Our Lady of Montserrat, a statue
of Ireland's patron Saint overlooks an altar pedestal made of carved shamrocks.
But in contrast to the assertive northerners, southern Montserratians seem
less sure of their region's Irish history. St Patrick's resident Nelly Dyer,
87 years old, still remembers her great-grandmother, Rosetta Williams, a
former slave who died in 1926 at 113 years. But when asked how they came
by their Irish names, Nelly and her neighbours, Nenen, Riley and Hess Skerritt,
shake their heads. No family records have survived, and the oral history
of any Irish lineage has been forgotten.
Lydia M. Pulsipher, an historical geographer at the University of Tennessee,
has shown that the south was the centre of Montserrat's seventeenth century
Irish population. With some 15 years' experience in archaeological and historical
research on Montserrat, Dr Pulsipher backs up her conclusion with convincing
documentary evidence. The 1678 census, for example, lists inhabitants by
name and residence, making it possible to calculate the ethnic make-up of
individual census tracts. And a map of the island, commissioned by Governor
William Stapleton in 1673, includes details as small as individual houses.
In the 1670s, says Pulsipher, Kinsale was the heart of the large Irish community.
The area around Kinsale was 80 per cent Irish. St Patrick's and the hills
above it were, on average, 66 per cent Irish. For the servants who laboured
on the southern estates, Kinsale served as a provincial capital and social
centre where small shops and 'tippling houses', or pubs, catered to Irish
Further south, the land now known as O'Garro's and Roche's estates was 98
percent Irish. This inhospitable area is where many free Irish men and women
settled at the end of their servitude, living in thatched, wattle-and-daub
cottages, they grew food and cash crops on small plots of dry, hilly ground.
Unlike their countrymen at Kinsale, who lived primarily in two-man units,
these Irish had formed extended families. Significantly, almost half of
these households owned between one and six slaves. Nowhere else on Montserrat,
writes Dr Pulsipher, were slaves so evenly distributed or living in such
close association with whites.
By the early years of the eighteenth century, many of the southern Irish
had drifted off to other colonies. But a significant number of former servants
stayed on, farming the hilly backcountry and gradually intermarrying with
their Black neighbours. Their descendants, Dr Pulsipher believes, were genetically
absorbed into the more numerous African population, leaving only their names
as reminders of a once flourishing Irish community.
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