Published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2011
It’s St Patrick’s Day and I’m in a bar. A fiddle is scratching out an Irish folk song and the crowd – many with shamrocks painted on their faces – joins in. But I’m not in Dublin or an Irish bar in New York. I’m in Montserrat. And no, I haven’t had one rum and Ting too many. There really is a giant leprechaun leaning against the bar.
There are only three places in the world where St Patrick’s Day is a public holiday: Ireland, the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and this tiny British protectorate in the Lesser Antilles. But only on Montserrat do the celebrations last all week and include displays of African dance, a Freedom run and a “slave feast”.
The reason is to be found in the island’s distant past. In the 17th century it was settled by Irish indentured servants fleeing from nearby Nevis. They were later joined by Catholic refugees from Virginia. Perhaps it reminded them of home as lush, green Montserrat – nicknamed the Emerald Isle – bears a striking resemblance to coastal Ireland (if coastal Ireland had black sand beaches). To this day, the national emblem is a carved shamrock, and the flag features a woman dressed in green holding a cross and a harp.
By the end of the 18th century, thousands of African slaves had been shipped in to work on the sugar plantations and when the slaves staged an unsuccessful uprising in 1768, they chose St Patrick’s Day on which to do it. And that’s why, more than 250 years later, we’re singing a sentimental song about Ireland in memory of African slaves.
But while my fellow carousers in The Green Monkey Inn are predominantly expats and American tourists here for the craic, most of the islanders – the descendants of the slaves and, to a lesser extent, the Irish settlers – are heading for a sports field a few miles away, in Salem. Here, the good ladies of Montserrat are unpacking their cool boxes and setting up their stalls for the Slave Feast. The PA pumps out ear-splitting contemporary R & B and, bizarrely, the principal dress code seems to be green and orange tartan.
“That’s our national dress,” says Margaret Wilson, who runs nearby Olveston House where I am staying. Does she mean it’s an ancient Caribbean weave? “Oh no. There was a competition to design it a few years ago…”
Margaret suggests a bowl of Goat Water. A cross between Irish stew and oxtail soup, Goat Water is Montserrat’s national dish (and somewhat older than its national dress). As we’re looking for somewhere to eat it, we spot a man with a long silver ponytail. It’s Pete Haycock, formerly of the Climax Blues Band.
Pete and his band were part of the music phenomenon that made Montserrat famous. In the late Seventies and Eighties, some of the world’s greatest artists – Paul McCartney, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, The Police – came to record at Sir George Martin’s state-of-the-art Air Studios.
It’s not far from where we’re chatting and later Margaret drives me up to see it. Abandoned after Hurricane Hugo devasted the island in 1989, it’s an empty shell now. We pick our way over the rubble and push open the front door. The once beautiful wood floors are rotting and every surface is covered with a thick layer of volcanic ash. The studio floor is strewn with papers, empty boxes and reels of recording tape. Outside, near the empty pool, there’s a stone commemorating the first band to record at Air Studios: the Climax Blues Band – and there’s Pete’s name scratched onto the stone.
Sir George Martin may have abandoned Air Studios but he didn’t desert the island. He owns Olveston House, where many of the artists recording at Air Studios stayed, and though it’s now run as a charming guesthouse – and one of the most popular restaurants on the island – most of the time, he still stays there occasionally. On the walls hang photographs of Air Studios by Linda McCartney.
But of course, the phenomenon that really put Montserrat on the map was the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano. Long dormant, it began to stir in the early Nineties and erupted in 1995. There have been regular ash falls and pyroclastic flows ever since, burning then burying Plymouth, the capital city, as well as the island’s only golf course, its beach resorts, its docking harbour and its old airport under many feet of ash, mud and stone.
Nearly half of Montserrat’s population has emigrated since that first eruption; of those who remain, many thousands had to abandon their homes and relocate farther north. Today, two thirds of the island – mostly lush, fertile land – has been declared an Exclusion Zone because it lies in the likely path of future flows. Stern notices guard the edges of the zone, promising that anyone entering without authorisation will be prosecuted.
To find out more, I go to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) on the edge of the Exclusion Zone. In the visitor’s centre I watch a fascinating film that includes footage of Plymouth before and after the eruption. First I see a vibrant town, with shops and banks and people going about their daily lives; the next moment I’m looking at a few indistinct shapes poking from the ash.
You can’t get anywhere near Plymouth today but you can get a tantalising glimpse of it from several points on the island (bring binoculars); if you have £190 to spare, you can take a helicopter tour from Antigua. However, you can visit what used to be the nine-hole golf course and my driver offers to take me there. Other than the silvery-grey skeletons of almond trees, it looks like the sort of place Captain Kirk would be beamed up from after finding no signs of life. I pick up a small piece of pumice and put it in my pocket. Then I notice that piercing the monochrome is the red tiled roof of a bungalow. But it isn’t a bungalow – it’s a three-story house.
Not surprisingly, the islanders prefer not to dwell on the bad times. They would rather point to all the positive things the island has to offer. It’s one of the safest islands in the Caribbean, for example, with little crime or drug-abuse and an old-fashioned, almost Fifties way of life (though you can pick up Wi-Fi almost everywhere). Its tap water is some of the purest in the world. It has a dazzling new Cultural Centre (built with funds raised by Sir George Martin), a new airport, a new airline that flies between Montserrat and Antigua, and one day it will have a new capital at Little Bay.
My driver, who has lived on the island all his life and who claims to make the best Goat Water on Montserrat, shrugs and says you just get used to living under a live volcano. He pulls over and tells me to get out and drink from a spring by the side of the road. “It means you will return to Montserrat one day,” he says.
Back at the Slave Feast, Margaret and I repair to the rum shop at the edge of the sports field where we watch the Masquerade dancers, dressed in masks, mitre-style hats, and brightly patterned clothes decked with fluttering ribbons, perform a mesmeric heel-and-toe Irish polka. They dance five ‘carrels’ or quadrilles, each one faster than the last. I sip my third rum and Ting of the day. The drums are now very loud; my head is starting to spin. And yes, that really is a giant leprechaun leaning against the bar.