The Irish connection with Montserrat dates back to the 1600s and is made obvious as soon as you pass through customs on entry: a distinctive shamrock is stamped on all international passports. Besides that, on the national flag the crest of the legendary Irish figure of Erin has been adopted along with a harp and Union Jack. As you begin to travel around the island, you will notice the traces of its Irish heritage, with popular surnames such as Daly and O Carroll, as well as various locations bearing Irish place names. Even the local cuisine has a dish which is supposed to have derived from a traditional recipe for Irish stew: here, known as ‘goat water’. Not to mention the fact that here, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated as a public holiday – the only country outside Ireland where this is the case. On this, the ‘Emerald Isle of the Caribbean’, the St Patrick’s Week of Celebrations held during March forms the climax of the annual events calendar and attracts both locals and international visitors to join in a whole series of festive activities. Events usually include a special service at the Catholic Church, a lecture, an exhibition, guided mountain hikes, the Freedom Run from Cudjoe Head to Salem Park, a St Patrick’s Day dinner and a Junior Calypso Competition. Commemorating at the same time the slave uprising on March 17th in 1768, a ‘ Slave Village’ is constructed to form an authentic backdrop to traditional food stalls selling delicious local grub, known as the ‘Slave Feast’. There are wonderful attractions to delight the kids such as a selection of crafted traditional games to play, story telling and a kite flying festival. Masqueraders are to be seen performing to local dances wearing brightly coloured traditional costumes, tall head dresses and whips. The sounds you will hear are created by a combination of African and European traditional instruments: fife and drum alongside banjo, boompipe, guitar, mouth organ, triangle, shak shak and bass drum. Steel bands bring you firmly back to the Caribbean, with blends of calypso, reggae and the popular Bam-chick-a-lay dance.
For hundreds of Montserratians living overseas, the time to take a trip home comes at the end of the year, for the annual Festival – the island’s equivalent to Carnival. Running from mid-December until New Year’s Day, the joy of families reunited is expressed by the exuberance of the celebrations: calypso competitions, the Festival Queen competition, beauty and talent shows and the customary New Year’s parade. Along with masqueraders, revelers cavort to the beat in the street ‘Jump Ups’ as night falls, led as if in a trance by the rhythms pumped out by the sound system as it moves through town on the back of a truck. Other shows which take place include choir performances, drama and the school performing arts festival.
Other quaint customs hark back to British rule. Amid pomp and pageantry, Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday is held during the first week in June, with an impressive military parade at Salem Park involving the Defense Force, Police Force, Fire and Rescue Service, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and Brownies, Pathfinders, Red Cross and other uniformed groups. Fund raising church fêtes or bazaars include home-cooked treats, drinks, gift stalls and stalls selling all manner of local products and preserves as well as more loud music and fun activities. Unlike their British equivalent, here they often continue into the night, when the arrival of the majority of visitors kindles a true party atmosphere.
There are a couple of angling events to hook the local fishermen, held as a local open tournament in May, and an International Tournament in September open to boats from all over the world and offering great prizes. Another typical local event is at Cudjoe Head. Named in the 18th century after a slave who ran away from his master, this village is located near the place that he was lynched in order to set an example to any fellow slaves of the kind of punishment they could expect. Now, however, the story has become lost in the familiar sounds of the street festival, with live music, masquerades and lots and lots of partying.