THE EMERALD ISLE

How Rum Became an Irish Drink

The Caribbean’s Celtic history goes back hundreds of years to the region’s cane sugar fields.

03.15.17 2:23 PM ET

This St. Patrick’s Day, on an island known as the Emerald Isle, businesses will shutter for the day, residents will don green tartan, streets will fill with music and dance, rum punch and green beer will be served by the fathom, and the competition for the island’s junior calypso champion and soca monarch will get real.

I refer, of course, to the island of Montserrat — the nickname, more fully, is the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. It’s arguably the most Gaelic island between Ireland and Manhattan. 

How it came to be this way traces an intriguing arc of history, dotted with cameos by sugar and rum.

The green invasion of the West Indies took root on the far side of the Atlantic in the mid-17th century. It was a time of vast political upheaval — the English Civil War left the British Isles wracked with disorder as the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles II in England, and the Irish Rebellion was in full flower starting in 1641. The latter involved Irish Catholics rising up against English invaders, with outbreaks of resistance persisting until Oliver Cromwell’s forces finally put down the insurrectionists in the early 1650s.

That was followed by many Irish catholic rebels being exiled overseas to prevent them from re-arming and re-rebelling. Tarred as traitors and “white slaves,” they were sent to labor on island colonies. Those who tried to escape and were caught were branded with FT, for “fugitive traitor.”

At the same time, many non-rebellious, everyday Irish sought to flee the chaos — some had lost their lands and many their livelihood during the wars. They signed up to ship out as servants and indentured laborers on the booming sugar islands. (Indentured laborers typically committed to four to seven years of work in exchange for their passage.) And so the Irish flooded westward across the waters, washing ashore at sugar plantations on British islands, including Barbados, Jamaica, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Montserrat.

And not just the British Islands — the Irish managed to infiltrate nearly every island in the Caribbean, including those held by the Spanish and French. Names of towns and geographic features across the Caribbean offer testimony to their range: Cork Hill, Irish Town, Belfast, Sweeney's Well, Riley's Estate, and Kildare, among them.

For historical reasons dimly understood, the Irish reached a critical mass most swiftly on Montserrat, a relatively small island (ten by seven miles) among the Lesser Antilles. By the 1678 census, about seventy percent of the island was Irish, either indentured servants or freemen. (Other islands had more Irish inhabitants in sheer number — there were about 8,000 on Barbados — but a lower proportion.) The Irish would come to dominate Montserrat — six of the island’s governors in the 17th century were Irish.

Among the more prominent personalities to emerge from the Montserrat Irish was Richard O'Farrill, whose parents immigrated from Ireland in 1667. Young Richard would go on to become a slave captain and planter, and within a century, the O’Farril family owned six sugar mills.

Irishness became deeply ingrained on the island. In 1780, the West India Atlas noted that the majority of those on Montserrat were either Irish or of Irish descent, “so that the use of the Irish language is preserved on the island, even among the Negroes.” Indeed, Gaelic was spoken well into the 19th century before it was finally eclipsed by English.

St. Patrick’s Day took on another meaning in 1768, when the slaves working the island’s sugar plantations moved to stage a revolt. While the island’s proprietors were distracted by celebrating St. Paddy, the slaves planned to invade Government House and seize weaponry. The revolt was sunk by a leak, and the incipient rebellion crushed. Nine ringleaders were hanged.

Today on Montserrat, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have a double edge — it both marks the island’s Gaelic heritage, as well as the suppressed uprising. (The first event among official festivities this Friday is the Freedom Jump-Up, which starts at 5 a.m.). Islanders like to note that the original St. Patrick himself arrived on Ireland as a slave.

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Island festivities marking the green aren’t as widespread as they were a generation ago. Starting in 1995, the Soufrière Hills volcano let forth with a series of devastating eruptions, rendering a significant portion of the island uninhabitable and reducing the population by three-quarters, to under 4,000 today.

Yet the Irish connection persists. If you visit, you’ll find a shamrock stamp in your passport. And waving over the squares where residents and visitor celebrate St. Patrick’s day, the island’s flag will flutter. It consists of a British blue ensign with Irish goddess Ériú in green bearing a black crucifix and playing golden harp.

So on Friday, let’s all hoist a rum punch to mark the day. Slainte!