Bar/fly: Caribbean island of Montserrat

By Kevin Pilley

On the Caribbean island of Montserrat, Kevin Pilley finds Irish heritage alive and well.

The Caribbean island of Montserrat. Photo / Getty Images
The Caribbean island of Montserrat. Photo / Getty Images

The Guinness was flowing in all the bars. Especially around "Jerks Corner".

The Dark Stuff was being shipped into plenty of faces in its ice-cold bottled form. The craic was good. And proudly Caribbean. The "begorrahs" were conspicuously inaudible. And the leprechauns very low on the ground. The music was more steel-pan than fiddle, more calypso than Celtic. The dancing was more reggae than Riverdance and the stout was supplemented by rum, tamarind juice and ginger beer. And the girls wore heliconia flowers in their hair.

Montserrat is no Monaghan. It is a proud British Overseas Territory. Where they sing Danny Boy proudly. But in patois.

Montserrat, 43km and a 20-minute flight from Antigua, was named by Columbus after the Montserrado mountain and monastery outside Barcelona. It is the only Caribbean island that celebrates St Patrick's Day and marks it with a Bank Holiday. It commemorates a failed slave uprising on March 17, 1798.

The first European settlers had arrived on the 40-square-mile island in 1632. They were English and Irish Catholics brought from the Protestant-only island of St. Kitts. In the 17th century, Montserrat became the sole refuge for persecuted Irish Catholics. Cromwell banished his political prisoners to the "Emerald Isle" in the Leewards islands after his victory at Drogheda.

The island's unique Irish heritage is still seen in common surnames and place names such as Drummonds, Sweeney and Fogarty. When you arrive at the Gerald's airport they stamp your passport with a shamrock. Erin's harp appears on the national flag. The local dish, goat water, is thought be derived from Irish stew. The local dance, "Bam-Chick-a-Lay" has its roots in Irish dance.

But Montserrat's history is now more modern. In 1995, the Soufriere Hills volcano rumbled into life. Two years later, it erupted. In 90 seconds the capital of Plymouth was engulfed by pyroclastic flows and left under 40 feet of volcanic ash and rubble. Only the tops of the church steeple and clock are now visible. W.H. Bramble airport disappeared. As did the Belem Valley golf course and the island's one cinema. One end of the island was evacuated and the population dropped from 11,000 to barely four. Only 19 people were killed. An Exclusion Zone was set up.

The volcano still huffs and puffs and there are fears for another eruption. It is the most-studied volcano in the world. The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) in Flemmings offers twice-weekly tours. You can get helicopter flights over the live dome from Jolly Harbour, Antigua. Every night you can watch the ominous glow from Jack Boy Hill. You are only allowed into Plymouth under escort.

The Beatles producer Sir George Martin built and worked at Air Studios. Eric Clapton, Sir Elton John and Sir Paul McCartney all recorded there.

St Patrick's Day commemorates a struggle. Our Cudjoe Head Day commemorates a runaway slave who was hanged from a cotton tree. The island's emancipation day celebrates the abolition of slavery in 1834.

A local lady handed me a drink. And told me to "get limin".

"What's limin?" I asked.

She smiled. Everyone around me was doing the same. "To lounge around with friends. To shoot the breeze," she said, before giving me another wide smile. And another long bottle. "Preferably with a beverage in your hand."

A truck carrying calabash beeped past. Everyone waved.

Someone turned up the radio and we "Bammed-Chick-a-Laid". Glasses clinked. Someone wished me "Happy Day After St Patrick's Day". Someone else whispered in my ear: "Montserrat. Still beautiful. Still nice. Still home." We moved on to John O'Darro's Pop-Up Shack. New bars pop up all over Montserrat on St Patrick's Day. We "limined" on. And did a fair bit of bammin' too.

- NZ Herald

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