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Sonja Smith Reviews St. Patrick’s Day Celebration in Montserrat: A History by Howard A. Fergus

This is not just another book about history for us to put on the shelf to gather dust and pat ourselves on the back because we have acquired another Fergus Publication. It is an ode to the long-dead unnamed slaves who died for an ideal of freedom that they could only see by faith. They are our unsung heroes. We have longed for a historical account behind the Montserrat celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and I would dare to propose that this record is here. The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Montserrat has evolved from the times when we still occupied the south side of the island. From the institution of a national holiday, a week of activities, and finally to a Festival that is held on the Island every year, it is the delight of many a visitor. It is now an important aspect of the cultural traditions and celebrations of our Island. In fact, the author refers to the St. Patrick’s National Holiday on Montserrat as “a quiet cultural and social revolution.” This publication is a shortened, albeit candid account of this portion of our history and I find that placing it in print was necessary.

We need to know our past so that we can chart where we are going because this is our story. This is a clear sentiment of the Author because he states that, “so many persons want to write our history, want to define us.” As I read this, it sounded like the beginning of an epic poem. There were several points of note that impacted me and I would like to share them with you today.

St. Patrick’s Day Celebration in Montserrat: A History gives us an in-depth look at a particular time of our history – what led to the 1768 rebellion – economic conditions at that time, as well as the ongoing development and contribution of the festival to the advancement of Montserrat as a nation. In the treatment of its history, there is an emphasis on the laws that placed pressure on the slaves and further increased their ill-treatment. These heightened the oppression and unfairness that was  rampant on the plantations in those days. For those who have not read it, or do not have a copy, I would like to draw your attention to an expanded account of the history of Montserrat in a book by the same author – Montserrat: History of a Caribbean Colony.

As I read the book I began to realize that the 1768 rebellion was not just another rebellion in a long line of uprisings, but was in fact, the foundation from which Montserrat or Alliouagana has risen. It singles out words such as National Pride, Nationalism, and Culture; along with notions of Identity, and yes, Independence.

This work also takes a forthright look at the realities of racism. It brings to bear the blatant racism that was here at the time of slavery which was covered up or wished away by individuals who refused to admit that this was so.

It also forces the reader to examine and re-examine everything that they may have heard or read about Montserrat and its beginnings. Indeed the words at the beginning of the work are striking, for the author contends that “It is now generally known that Columbus did not discover Montserrat or any other Caribbean islands for that matter. Indeed the Amerindians had preceded him by more than 1000 years, and according to Ivan Van Sertima and other scholars, Africans were in the Caribbean and early America before Columbus. What Columbus did was to bring Europe in contact with the islands and this has tremendous historical consequences.” (pg 8)

Also, it is worth mentioning that the story of the uprising was in danger of becoming labelled as a Nancy Story or a legend but the Author quickly corrects this by pointing out, “We can confirm. John Messenger is wrong. There is nothing legendary of the well-documented account of the 1768 slave uprising in Montserrat on 17 March.”

Out of the foundation of the uprising of 1768 we see contributions of Sir George Irish to the Cultural Landscape of the Island. The author refers to Dr George Irish as one who started a cultural renaissance during his time here in Montserrat in the years 1971 to 1975. There are others who contributed as well to the development of culture in Montserrat at that time as well, but I ask that you read the book to find out more. The writings also signify that the St Patrick’s Day celebrations in this era sought to give voice to the repression that the slaves felt at that time. He went on to re-affirm that the first celebration in 1972 was Montserrat-based and not necessarily Irish in nature.

Another point worthy of note is the mention of the day in 1988 when the Photos of our heroes were hung in Parliament, the author refers to it as “a day of rejoicing” (pg 55-56). Afterward, all the persons involved were invited to the Government House for drinks. This was a marked contrast to the 1768 rebellion where the slaves were unnamed and sentenced to death but over 200 years later, they were being celebrated. The symbolism here of our Black heads being elevated in comparison to them being removed is one that will stay with me for a long time.

Going forward there have been numerous activities that have been used to represent this August event such as the St Patrick’s Freedom run, exhibitions, and pageants, just to name a few. The author also emphasized that these celebrations were not just limited to the village of St Patrick’s but Montserrat as a whole benefitted from them. The author reminds us that the Celebrations have taken many forms including theatre, dance, music, a celebration of folktales and folksongs and concerts. The establishment of the Irish connection, its boost to tourism and the Montserrat economy is also important. However the author reminds us that we need to remember that while we do not deny the Irish connections we are not celebrating Ireland but we are celebrating Montserrat and Montserratians. In my own words, we must not sacrifice our identity on the altar of the economy.


I conclude with the statement that I began this review with. This is not just another book. It begs the reader to dig deep and to examine the concept of who we are as Montserratians. What makes us a people? What are we willing to fight for as a nation? This book provokes you to ask yourself what St. Patrick’s means to me. It begs another question, are we in danger of taking on other identities? The author
reminds us that we are commemorating a historical event and calls it a “struggle for freedom”.

This a book that will leave an impression on the reader. Get your copy today, you won’t regret it.