Montserrat is currently caught up in the revelry of festivity and the harsh reality of its history as priorities compete for prominence during its now-annual popular March cultural festival.
The two-week long festival is advertised as ‘Montserrat’s St Patrick’s Festival - Celebrating Our Afro-Irish Heritage’.
But that's a misnomer which misrepresents the historical significance of the date in Montserrat's history.
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 its appropriateness, especially as it clashes with the anniversary of a milestone event in Montserrat’s history.
On March 17th 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 are demanding to be given precedence over notions of an Irish connection.
A celebratory refrain of “Irish-in-me-blood”, misplaced and nods to shamrocks and leprechauns by those highlighting some semblance of an Irish connection seems inappropriate and insensitive to the occasion.
March 17th - 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 to bring 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 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 on playing to a notion of Irishness is misplaced at best, especially as the Irish who hardly visit anyway for the festival in their saint's name. And those who come, or write about, see it as a novelty...or perhaps more of an oddity.
Who it attracts are the ever-increasing numbers of overseas-based Montserratians. The festival has become a magnet for reunions, especially of islanders displaced by the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano which has left about two-thirds of their homeland uninhabitable.
For the two weeks of the festival, the island heaves and reverberates with their joyous presence. By some accounts the population of around 4,500 doubles during that period.
From its previous predominantly African and Caribbean flavour, the event has recently seen an increasingly heavy infusion of Irish symbolism orchestrated 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’. But actual knowledge of Ireland or things Irish is, well…distant.
There is no doubt that there's space for Montserrat’s very visible Irish past.
It's undeniable that the long Irish presence on the island, from 1632 to during the slavery era and until they had gradually left by the start of the 20th century, has left its mark.
That legacy has endured in pace and people names.
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 region 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 17th (St Patrick’s Day) holiday in Montserrat.
As the festival evolves as a uniquely Montserratian event, it needs to ensure that it doesn't lose sight of its ethos.
Branding it the 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 fashion, the written word, featured cuisine, performances and music.
And it's also inspiring a thirst for more historical research and Afro-Caribbean cultural expression. Until recently there was also an African Music Festival indigenous African artistes but, disappointingly, that has been off the calendar for the past few years.
The debate which has 'erupted' 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.
The organisers of the March festival should be careful not to turn it into a load of blarney…a sham on the ‘rock’.
27 Jan, 2020
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15 Sep, 2021