EMERALD ISLE

TRAVEL Montserrat makes much of its Irish heritage. But Lucretia Stewart found the similarities nowadays limited to insouciance when the volcano rumbles
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The Independent Culture
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.

Dr Fergus is senior lecturer in Caribbean history and education at the University of the West Indies and the author of an essay entitled Montserrat 'Colony of Ireland': The Myth and the Reality. He was less than enthusiastic about the Irish connection when I went to see him on the island one afternoon.

"It is now used as a means of attracting tourists," he said. "We get a number of Irish people making enquiries about their roots, some from North America, some from Ireland. Montserratian leaders have gone to Ireland to cement the relationship. I am one of the few people who try to play down the Irishness of Montserrat. The Irish did not influence greatly the life and culture of Montserrat - they themselves were discriminated against. Their main legacy is Catholicism. The Irish came here seeking freedom of worship, but during the heyday of plantation life in Montserrat, most were only a few removes from slavery." And the 17 March celebration in Montserrat has nothing to do with the Irish saint; it commemorates the nine leaders of a slave rebellion executed in 1768.

I had asked if there were any Irish Montserratians for me to talk to and, somewhat to my surprise, one was found. Miss Teresa Sweeney lives out in the countryside in St Peter's parish (where no Roman Catholic church had ever been built; if the ancestors of the people there were Irish, the landlords were Protestant). The day was overcast, presaging rain; we drove through villages with curious names: Weeks and Salem and Frith. The island was all velvety hills and valleys scattered with ruined houses of dark volcanic stone.

Miss Sweeney was a light-skinned women with "soft" hair (as opposed to African hair, which is called "hard"), but she seemed about as Irish as reggae music or rum punch. Had she perhaps answered an advertisement in the Montserrat Herald for an Irish person? Did she perhaps think that all light-skinned people qualified as Irish? She told me that her maternal grandparents were from Ireland, that they were white overseers. She said her mother was "like" a white woman and that her father was a "brown-skin man" from Montserrat. One uncle had been married to an Irishwoman in the United States. She tried to be helpful but knew little of her forebears. I thanked her for her time and took her photograph.

The Montserrat tourist board also claims that the island is "the way the Caribbean used to be". This seems to have about as much basis in reality as the Irish connection, though Montserratians have a reputation for friendliness. The island, however, is pretty sophisticated. I was staying at the Isles Bay Plantation, a lavish development of houses each with a 40ft swimming pool, overlooking a golf course. There is no shortage of luxury villas for rent or sale in Montserrat; the most torpid island in the eastern Caribbean with a population of only 11,000, it is also remarkably free of the shanty-town appearance that characterises much of the region. There are only two hotels; most of the tourism is in villas. Rock stars such as Sting appreciate the island's tranquillity; George Martin has a house there. It is a favourite retirement spot and the streets of Plymouth are littered with elderly white men in shorts and socks. Many of them have built beautiful houses on Montserrat's emerald slopes. Other islands have cricket; Montserrat has golf.

But Montserrat's placid exterior can be deceptive; the volcano has been providing excitement for months now and the first time I went there, in 1993, I was bitten by a dog and attacked - well, accosted anyway - by a man with a machete. All in the space of two days.

The dog bite happened as I was concluding an almost certainly illegal transaction to hire a car from a friend of the hotel barman; it was Sunday and more conventional outlets were closed. The dog had been barking hysterically at the end of a chain throughout the negotiations and finally managed to bite me on the calf. I insisted on going to the hospital where a nurse glanced casually at my bruised and swollen leg, said that there was nothing they could do for me, but not to worry, there was no rabies on Montserrat.

The encounter with the machete-wielding maniac occurred when I went to photograph the Philatelic Society, whose roof had been blown off by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Montserrat was badly hit by Hugo, which rendered more than 2,500 people homeless. No part of the island was untouched by the storm. In the harbour at Plymouth, the 180ft quay completely disappeared.

As I aimed my camera at the decapitated building, a man waving a cutlass lurched towards me, shouting and screaming. I tried to explain that I was photographing the building, not him, but he could not or would not hear. He came so close that I could feel his spittle on my face and brandished the machete under my nose. Two schoolgirls walking by came to my rescue. "Leave de white woman alone, man," they said, and he went away.

Carved round the doorway at Andy's Village Place in Salem were the words Cead Mile Filte, "One Hundred Thousand Welcomes" in Gaelic. But inside was the Caribbean at its most laid-back. Andy, muttering darkly about "woman-mongering", was planning a special menu to lure people to "safe- zone Salem". Despite the government newsletter headline "Montserrat Volcano Crisis Unfolds", nobody seemed too bothered. As a friend back in Antigua put it: "That volcano bin jerkin' off for years and he ain't ever come yet." !

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