St Patrick's Day Abroad: The Story of Montserrat

Montserrat is the only territory outside of the island of Ireland to designate St Patrick's Day as a public holiday; characterised by celebrations of culture and history.


Daniel Toft

3/12/20247 min read

Much of our understanding of Saint Patrick largely stems from his purported self-authored work in which he allegedly tells his story himself in his Confessio; a fifth century autobiography of sorts. Surviving now in only eight manuscripts, the remarkable story tells his tale from the perspective of his older self. Now an older man, he reflects on his life and calling before God.

St Patrick’s story began in Roman Britain, where he was captured by a gang of slave traders and sent to Ireland to endure a life of servitude as a shepherd amongst the harsh fifth-century Irish landscape. In this tumultuous era, Ireland was defined by warring tribes and ruled by chieftains, setting Patrick up for six rough years of hunger, cold and exposure. Despite his family’s religious background; his father a Deacon and his grandfather a Priest, Patrick had not been deeply committed to his faith. This was until his time in Ireland transformed him from a largely irreligious young man to a devout one. Amidst the harsh conditions in which he was forced to survive, Patrick underwent a spiritual awakening, and fostered a strong and unyielding faith that was often hard to come by in Roman Britain. Patrick prayed incessantly both during daylight hours and throughout the night, motivated by both his love and fear of God. After six long years of slavery, God spoke to Patrick in a dream, promising him reward and guiding him to return home. “Soon you will go to your own country. See, your ship is ready”, Patrick recounted the voice saying. Determined, Patrick travelled 200 miles on foot across the country to the west coast, and after initial refusal and a prayer, Patrick was permitted to board a ship. A month of travel by sea and land later; Patrick was reunited with the comforts of home. However, his restless spirit soon received another message from God by way of a dream, leading him to accept a missionary calling as the apostle of Ireland via a dreamt letter titled “The Voice of the Irish”. Embracing his newfound mission, Patrick underwent extensive theological training and was then ordained as a Bishop of Ireland. Despite the risks in a challenging and often dangerous environment, Patrick’s love for the Irish people was paramount over any concerns he had for his safety. Throughout his time as Bishop, he displayed qualities of generosity and humility, whilst challenging injustice and translating the gospel both into the local language but also helped engrain it into society’s culture; allegedly using shamrocks to explain the Holy Trinity to others. His successful mission left a lasting impact, with churches scattered right across Ireland, and the monasteries becoming centres of education amidst a backdrop of cultural transformation. By the year of his probable death, 461 A.D., Ireland had seen a significant and lasting reduction in war and violence, the practical end of the slave trade, and the widespread conversion of the people largely to Christianity. Contrasted against its neighbour; the Roman Empire, Ireland experienced both a cultural and intellectual revolution.

As a Yorkshireman now living in Northern Ireland pursuing university education at Queen’s, it was naturally expected by my peers that I would celebrate St Patrick’s Day alongside them - something I hadn’t considered before. Whilst a Catholic; not practising but being appreciative of the religion, I hadn’t been aware of the rich history associated with St Patrick, or the reason he was so widely celebrated. Aside from a day of social engagement, I hadn’t – and much of Northern Ireland hadn’t evidently – appreciated the day for what it is supposed to be. Widely celebrated right across the island of Ireland, it is often sometimes easy to forget the Saint’s, and therefore the day’s, connection to other territories. Often on the day, we see the United States leading in the media as Irish leaders flock to Washington DC to celebrate alongside the President, and the Chicago River being dyed green just before the day. After all, the celebration and commemoration has a long history in the country; celebrated in Boston first in 1737 as a symbol of unity amongst Irish expatriates, and in New York in 1762.

However, often overlooked is the Caribbean island territory of Montserrat: a British Overseas Territory that sits as part of the Leeward Islands. Dubbed “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” due to its Irish heritage and geographical similarities with the island of Ireland, the territory was devastated by the Soufrière Hills volcano in July 1995, destroying the capital city of Plymouth and forcing a significant majority of the population to flee the island; mainly relocating to the UK. Whilst the exclusion zone remains, the spirit of the population lives on, and they are actively constructing new facilities at Little Bay on the north-west coast to replace the old capital. Montserrat is the only territory outside of the island of Ireland to designate St Patrick’s Day as public holding; designating it as such in 1985, and turning it into a long holiday and cultural festival, generally lasting between ten and fifteen days long. It serves to highlight the history of the island through the promotion of its song, dance and unique culinary offering, differing significantly in the execution of its celebration from both Irish and American festivities, and represents a significant part of the island’s economy as tourists flock to Montserrat to observe and participate in the celebrations.

The Irish settlers were not the first to reside on the island - those were the Tainos. The first Irish settlers of Montserrat, however, escaped the invasion of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell, with the first ever census of the Leeward Islands in that time period showing a significant increase in the Irish population in the region. Originally landing in St Kitts and Nevis, the inhabitants, which included Irish, English and other European settlers, spread to Montserrat - with the new population ranging from predominantly African servants and slaves to the wealthiest in society; from Europe, leading to a significant divide amongst the populace. Primarily due to the increase in the tobacco and sugar trades, more enslaved people were transported to the island. However, on St Patrick’s Day in 1768, the slaves decided to revolt, and as many slave owners were Irish, the slaves believed that the slave owners would be distracted from managing the slaves due to their intoxication as they celebrated the day. Their plan was overheard, and the slave owners were prepared for the revolt rather than distracted as was originally expected. The revolt ultimately failed, and nine people were hung for their roles in it, with a further thirty sent to prison. Slavery was eventually abolished on the island in 1834 by the English. The revolt had long been forgotten, until in 1971, Montserratian scholars discovered references to it and began to publicise it, eventually leading to the national holiday designation. The story of slavery in Montserrat is one which is incredibly linked to the story of St Patrick, with St Patrick’s Day providing Montserratians with a significant opportunity within the calendar each year to promote and celebrate their shared Irish and African culture and heritage.

Their celebration of the specific revolt sits as part of a wider context of Irish heritage, and nods to the connection, on the island. The territory’s coat of arms, originally adopted in 1909, is a shield featuring a lady wearing green who represents Erin; the female personification of Ireland. She grasps a golden harp, one of the symbols of Ireland and stands with the cross. The territory’s flag, adopted in 1962, is similar to other flags of the British Overseas Territories through the use of the British blue ensign, but is ‘defaced’ with (or, for those who aren’t vexillologists, features) the coat of arms. Additionally, on arrival to the Caribbean island, passports are stamped with a shamrock shaped stamp.

Coat of Arms of Montserrat

Flag of Montserrat

The main St Patrick’s Day festival in Montserrat in 2024 lasts fifteen days, from the 17th March to the 31st March, with the official public holiday as designated by the Government taking place on the 18th March as St Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday. The festival kicks off with a torch lighting ceremony at Cudjoe Head; a village named after the individual who led the revolt in 1768, lost his life to it, and had his head hung from a silk-cotton tree as a warning to all other slaves who may be planning other revolts. The festivities then continue right across the fifteen days. Bus tours of the island showcase the cultural sights to tourists, and all can participate in displays of local fashion, live music, and traditional food, drink – and Guinness. Previous festivals have featured specifically themed concerts appropriately named, for example, ‘Emerald City Fest’ and ‘Gold Rush’, which feature and promote the local musical talent on the island, with the sound of Caribbean music dominating the island. The main day of celebration, the 17th March, as is the case in Ireland, sees participants dressed in colourful costumes and Montserratians wearing green and orange dress take to the streets with drummers and other musicians, marking the sacrifice of their ancestors.

The 2020 St Patrick’s Day festivities on Montserrat, just like in Ireland, were disrupted and ultimately cancelled by the Government due to the COVID-19 pandemic, awkwardly after people began arriving. However, the event was permitted to return in a limited format in 2021 as Montserratians were offered the vaccine and had not reported a case of the virus for a seven-month period. Despite this, tourists were largely not able to participate as the ferry did not run and arrivals by air were forced to quarantine. The celebrations took the form of virtual presentations, with different approaches to the traditional events being announced by the primary organisers, the Montserrat Arts Council. The festivities were permitted to return to normal in 2022.

As we celebrate St Patrick’s Day right across the island of Ireland, or in the United States, let us not forget about our friends in Montserrat who’s Irish heritage and national story is so incredibly intertwined with the story of St Patrick.