Why the Caribbean island of Montserrat celebrates St Patrick’s Day

Here is one of the many articles circulating these days on St Patrick’s Day in Montserrat. Nerissa Golden reports for Lonely Planet.

The St Patrick’s Festival has become one of Montserrat’s most popular annual events. This year mark’s the return to the island’s first in-person festival since 2020 and I can’t wait.

I attended my first St Patrick’s Festival in 2003. Back then, Montserrat was still experiencing periodic volcanic eruptions and the makeshift festival grounds at Little Bay were dusty with gray ash. Coconut fronds framed small shacks set up to house the Slave Feast. Frying pans bubbled with Johnny Cakes and fried chicken as string-band music played on the stage. It was very much a small, locals-only event happening over two or three days but not anymore. Now, visitors from all over the world and many Montserratians return for 10 days of culture, revelry and food.

Why do we celebrate an Irish holiday in Montserrat?

On March 17, 1768, the Montserrat’s martyrs of freedom attempted to overthrow the island’s leaders while they celebrated the Irish feast of St Patrick at Government House. The story goes that a woman overheard the enslaved people’s plans and reported the plot. The rebellion was thwarted, nine of the ringleaders were executed and another 30 were imprisoned and later banished from the island.

In the early 1970s, the local campus of the University of the West Indies began organizing lectures and exhibitions and performances around that date to encourage national pride. These activities were later centralized in the village of St Patrick’s to give it a special day like other communities had, such as St John’s Day held every December 27. Montserrat’s first commemoration of St Patrick’s Day as a holiday was held in 1985.

Why should I go?

While many of Montserrat’s villages and family names still bear the legacy of Ireland’s presence during and after slavery, Montserrat’s version of St Patrick’s Day is a chance to remember the price paid in the struggle for freedom. It’s a complex juxtaposition of a painful past and the color and vibrancy of life, which in Montserrat, like in Ireland, is vibrant shades of green. The festival does offer attendees the chance to wear their leprechaun hats, four-leaf clovers and the like, but you will also see imagery of broken chains, African apparel and the music and culture of a community learning to remake itself after multiple devastations.

Whether you come for the revelry and rum, or the culture, Montserrat’s St Patrick’s Festival offers many ways to celebrate.

When is it?

The 2023 festival takes place from Friday March 10 to Sunday March 19 at various locations across the island, including Salem in the south and Little Bay in the north. The landmark Montserrat Cultural Centre in Little Bay, which was built from funds raised at the famous Music for Montserrat concert in 1997 at London‘s Royal Albert Hall, serves as a performance center for concerts, theater productions and national ceremonies.

The Slave Feast has been renamed Heritage Feast and is the highlight of the festival taking place from noon on St Patrick’s Day (March 17) into the evening in Salem village. 

The 10-day festival is a mix of day and night events so careful planning is necessary to get the best of both. Sleep becomes optional the closer you get to March 17. [. . .]

[. . .] What events should I attend?

The days surrounding the holiday are always packed with events, performances and ceremonies. Here are some of the best. The symbolic opening of the festival takes place with the Lighting of the Flame in Cudjoe Head, a central location on the island, on Friday evening. The short ceremony honors the enslaved and freedom fighters who rebelled over the course of our history. The flame is lit in a Silk Cotton Tree where a runaway enslaved man called Cudjoe was beheaded and hung to discourage other Africans from running away.

Then there are several plays, dance performances and local musical acts on the calendar. Sayings is a theater production that will have a two-night run at the Sir George Martin Auditorium in the Montserrat Cultural Centre. While you’re there, be sure to check out the memorabilia from rockstars, including Phil Collins and Sir Elton John, who recorded albums on the island at the famous Air Studios in the 1980s.

Designers from Montserrat and the diaspora participate in the Afro Madras Fashion Show, held outdoors at Moose’s Place in Little Bay. Along with new spins on the national costume, male and female models show off designs created with African prints and the yellow, white and green madras, which is commonly used in celebrations and cultural events here. The show, like many others, is used to raise funds for local charities and community endeavors to support the elderly and children.

Young and old converge on Salem on St Patrick’s Day for the Heritage Feast and Street Parade. While not mandatory, you can expect to see people dressed in African prints, Montserrat’s national dress made with a green, orange and white madras, leprechaun hats and T-shirts expressing either their Irishness or their Africanness. There are performances by the Emerald Shamiole Masquerades dancing in their colorful headdress to the fife and drum.

Two of the island’s foremost cultural practitioners, Myrle Roach and Ann Marie Dewar, will perform poetry and monologues in Montserrat creole. Many people from the diaspora return for the festival bringing a larger audience for creatives to launch new books.

The Emerald Community Singers, which has been performing for over 50 years, traditionally hosts an evening of Montserratian, Irish and Caribbean folk songs during the festival. [. . .]

[. . .] What’s on the menu?

Pub crawls were added to the celebrations back in 1985 and they are still part of the vibe today. While there are no official pub crawls on the calendar, every local bar will have its own crowd and their bush rum, which you must try. Gary Moore’s Bar in Salem is guaranteed to have a steady crowd throughout the festival.

The St Patrick’s Festival is a good time to get your fix of traditional sweets such as guava cheese, coconut tart, tamarind balls and gooseberry stew. 

At the Heritage Feast, look out for the booths selling ducana — a blend of grated sweet potatoes, coconut and spices cooked in banana leaves. Most local cook shops and many of the booths at the Feast will serve Montserrat’s national dish, Goat Water, which is a rich meat stew served steaming hot. Add this to your list of foods to try. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/st-patricks-day-montserrat

Also see detailed schedule of events at https://associatestimes.com/montserrat-set-to-host-st-patricks-festival-2023-launches-calendar-of-events/

I highly recommend this 2021 article: https://daily.jstor.org/montserrats-st-patricks-day-commemorates-a-rebellion/

Also see https://www.sntravel.co.uk/events-list/montserrat-st-patricks-day-festival-2023/ and https://touristmeetstraveler.com/2023/celebrate-a-caribbean-cultural-st-patricks-day-on-montserrat/

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