Thursday, March 17, 2011

From the Archives: Even Trinidadians Are a Little Irish

The Irish have traveled to all corners of the world, and like other immigrant groups, wherever they have stayed they have left a mark.

Ed Note: I'm continuing to showcase some of my favorite AiP posts since I'm on the road this week—this one was one of the first Research Blogging Editor's Selections I was awarded.

Happy St. Paddy's Day! This Irish national holiday celebrates Patrick who is—arguably—the most recognizable of Irish saints, known for championing Irish Christianity (and using a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity). The observance has also been viewed as a one day break from the abstinence of the Lenten season. While it still has religious undertones, for a vast majority of people, St. Patrick's Day is a day for merry-making—jovial gatherings, and free-flowing alcohol are all characteristics of the day. Everyone is supposedly a little Irish on St. Patrick's Day and there is more truth to this saying than most recognize. It's not merely a loophole allowing for the uninhibited consumption of Guinness. The Irish have traveled to all corners of the world, and like other immigrant groups, wherever they have stayed they have left a mark.

With its distinct culture, people, and linguistic markers, the Caribbean might be the last place you would think to look for the Irish. But much in the same way the spirit of the Dutch is alive and well in New York City in street and place names, so too do the Irish have a presence in places such as Montserrat, Jamaica, St. Kitts, and elsewhere throughout the British Caribbean. For example, in Jamaica alone one will find:
Irish Town and Dublin Castle in the cool hills of St. Andrew; Irish Pen and Sligoville in St. Catherine; Athenry and Bangor Ridge in Portland; Clonmel and Kildare in St. Mary; Belfast and Middleton in St. Thomas; Ulster Spring in Trelawny, and Hibernia in Christiana ... And then there were the obviously Irish surnames, despite the less than obvious features that went with them: the Burkes, the Collins, the Lynches, the Murphys, the Maddens, the Mullings, the Lanigans, and the Walshes. There were the McCarthys, McCormacks, McDermotts, McDonnoughs, McGanns, McLaughlins, and McMorris's. 
How did the Irish come to be here, so far from their emerald island? The surnames above may not carry the prestige of an Astor or a Schermerhorn, but they tell of a history that is no less important. [Left: The flag of Montserrat reveals an Irish connection by featuring Erin, the personification of Ireland, as well as a harp, which is another Irish symbol.]

Following the Battle of Kinsdale, the Irish Clan system was largely abolished and the English had seized most of the land of Ulster. The 30,000-something prisoners of war were shipped off and sold as laborers to the colonies of the Caribbean and the United States. According to one source:
The first Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River In South America in 1612. It would probably be more accurate to say that the first “recorded” sale of Irish slaves was in 1612, because the English, who were noted for their meticulous record keeping, simply did not keep track of things Irish, whether it be goods or people, unless such was being shipped to England.
The Proclamation of 1625 would make this a common practice. Irish political prisoners would be routinely packed up and sold off as laborers:
In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves, which records show was a cause of concern to the English planters.
Apparently, the Irish were desirable "slave stock" because they could be obtained for free and sold for a profit, whereas traders would need to pay to have Africans "caught" which minimized the profit margin. And because they were "cheaper" in this sense, the Irish often suffered harsher punishments from their plantation masters. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 80,000 Irish were sold as laborers. The population in Ireland was drastically reduced: In 1652, Ireland's population was 616,000, down from 1,466,000 in 1641. Of course, this change was not solely due to to the slave trade—famine, wars, and disease certainly played a role.

Nonetheless, the Irish presence in the Caribbean had been firmly established:
Most European settlers on the islands confined themselves to one or another island or group of islands, hence the modern-day expressions Hispanic Caribbean, French Caribbean, British Caribbean, and so on. The Irish, on the other hand, looked for and found new homes wherever opportunities or other circumstances took them. They resided on practically all of the islands of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean zone, as demonstrated in the papers by Rodgers, Anderson, Power and Chinea, among others. Some of them were undoubtedly trans-colonial, multilingual, and highly adaptable to changing environments.
The Caribbean is unique in this way. Its role in the colonial power struggle has brought together people from all different backgrounds, resulting in a cultural mixing not truly seen elsewhere.

I can only confidently speak on behalf of Trinidadians where the resulting mix of Africans, Indians, Chinese, and others has created blended cultural artifacts in the forms of food, festivals, music, religion, and clothing. Intermarriage between groups has strengthened these blended artifacts giving them a particular authority in these areas. Trinidadians, being enthusiastic rum connoisseurs have taken to Guinness, that popular Irish brew, and created their own version of the Guinness Float (Guinness and ice cream). Trinis have been known to take their Guinness mixed with carnation milk—a drink I can remember having perhaps a bit early in my forays into drinking. [Right: A pint of Guinness.]

So on this St. Paddy's Day, I invite you to think about the ways we are all connected via histories and relationships that may not be so apparent at first glance. And go ahead and enjoy the holiday however you choose to mark it—after all, we are all a little Irish.

And if you're interested in reading more about the Irish diaspora, there's a great list of resources here that you can check out. I would also recommend—in the name of social science—that is you can claim a connection to Ireland, that you register with the Irish Diaspora project.

Photo by Pixabay

Chinea, Jorge L (2007). Ireland and the Caribbean. Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 5 (3), 143-144. [document]

Rodgers, Nini (2007). The Irish in the Caribbean 1641-1837: An Overview. Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, 5 (3), 145-156.

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