Emerald Isle

Article excerpt

THE DAY before I left Montserrat, the Chief Minister, the Honourable Reuben Meade, declared a state of emergency and ordered a phased evacuation of the capital. The volcano had been acting up for months, since July 1995, and Plymouth, the island's toy-town capital, and the surrounding villages had already been evacuated more than once. When the news broke on the radio I was at the other end of the island in the far north at Carr's Bay. I had gone there to see the oldest burial ground in Montserrat - Theodore, my guide from the tourist board, used that term rather than "cemetery". No sooner had the Chief Minister finished speaking than Theodore was on the telephone to the mother of his children telling her to pack; we cut short our tour and drove back towards the capital.

A low cloud of black smoke lay over the Soufriere Hills and the roads were choked with cars and trucks taking people and possessions to the safe north. On the way into Plymouth, we passed a street preacher bellowing, "The wrath of God shall fall upon the island". Theodore dropped me at the Montserrat National Trust where you could get a T-shirt bearing the words "Now she puffs/But will she Blow?/Trust In the Lord/And Pray it's No". I bought the local paper, the Montserrat Herald. The leader writers were having a field day:

"Fire in the mountain

Run Montserratians, run!

The brave ones shall sound the alarm

At the sound of the alarm, the faint-hearted will run

Fire in the mountain

Run! Run, Montserratians, run!"

People were already queuing in the banks and supermarkets; from the next day, everything would close down for four weeks.

The taxi driver who took me to my hotel had gone to Antigua for a month when the volcano first started acting-up three months earlier. Now he was staying put, perhaps in response to the example set by Arrow, the local calypso star, who had just released a song called "Ah Just Can't Run Away" from an album chirpily entitled Arrow Phat.

Montserrat, one of Britain's six remaining Caribbean colonies (now known as dependent territories), has the distinction of being the Caribbean's only "Irish" island; the tourist board makes much play of the Irish connection, distributing leaflets revealing that Montserrat, the self-styled "Emerald Isle of the West", is 3,000 miles west of Ireland and listing some 73 Irish surnames to be found on the island: Fagan, Farrell, Maloney, O'Brien, O'Donoghue, Reilly, Ryan and so on. Catholicism is the main religion. "Present-day natives of Montserrat have retained many Irish customs and beliefs," continues the shamrock-festooned pamphlet. "A popular folk dance, the 'heel and toe', has been attributed to Irish customs as well as the national dish, goatwater, which is believed to be a popular Irish stew." The island's crest depicts Erin with her harp; as you come through immigration, your passport is stamped with a shamrock, and 17 March, St Patrick's Day, is a public holiday.

There are many apparent similarities between Ireland and the Caribbean: both share a casual, anything-goes, what-the-hell attitude to life; they have in common an enthusiasm for religion and a passion for music and poetry, for debate and rhetoric, and for drinking and dancing. West Indians, like Irishmen, are big talkers and full of charm. But is there any more to Montserrat's Irishness?

In the 17th century Montserrat became a sanctuary for victims of religious persecution. Protestant intolerance in St Kitts caused the first wave of Irish Catholic settlers and Catholics from Virginia made up the second. "Montserrat was unique among the Caribbean English colonies in having freedom of religion as a dominant motive for its establishment," wrote Dr Howard Fergus, the island's Deputy Governor, in his history of Montserrat. Cromwell dispatched more Irish Catholics to Montserrat as political prisoners, following his victory at Drogheda in 1649. …