March 17 is St Patrick’s Day, celebrated in most of the British Commonwealth, and certainly in non-Commonwealth countries such as the US, in New York. which often seems to be a country of its own with strong Irish roots. and where traditionally a huge parade takes place through the streets of that city.
The Irish, like Trinidadians, have a diaspora that can be found almost everywhere on the globe. In Montserrat, St Patrick’s Day is a public holiday. as so many of its early settlers came as indentured labourers from Ireland and their descendants, those who survived the volcanic eruption in 1995, are still there.
The Irish diaspora is as notable as those of most island peoples. Before the great famine of 1847, during which over a million Irish people died of starvation, the Irish were shipped out to the West Indies as indentured labourers after the abolition of slavery in 1834.
Just as people from India were rounded up by press gangs and shipped out to the colonies to replace the emancipated slaves, the Irish, treated as somewhat lesser mortals, were arrested for trespassing on private property or being drunk and disorderly (which they often were)and shipped off to faraway colonies, separated from their families for life, destined to labour as hewers of wood and drawers of water.
BV Lass, an historian from India wrote about it thus: "In relation to the British Empire, the largest and most concerted expression of indenture occurred between 1834 and 1920, when two million Indians, and thousands of others from across Asia, Africa, and Oceania were exploited under a system intended to replace enslaved African labour in the Caribbean and Mauritius. Thousands of Irish, English and Scottish people were also forced into indentureship in the New World."
We don’t read much about them in our schoolbooks, though.
Although diversity is a feature of Trinidadian culture and society that is often boasted about now, there are many Trinis who are not even aware that they have Irish DNA. Noted historians such as Fr de Verteuil, who has been the main person who has preserved the history of this country, a gift he has thereby given to the nation, wrote about the Irish presence in Trinidad as early as the late 1700s.
In fact, following periods when the Royal Irish Regiment was sent to Trinidad to quell the rebellious locals, Fr de Verteuil noted that they left behind them more illegitimate than legitimate offspring. Of the legitimate ones alone, anyone with an ancestor with a surname like Kernahan, Fitzgerald, Devenish, O’Connor, Waldrond, Kelly, or Lloyd can trace their Irish heritage in TT, some to dates before the abolition of slavery and indentureship.
The Irish, known to be hot-headed, were made mention of in the local press, from which we get our records. In fact, one young Irishman was recorded in 1870 as being admonished for assaulting the editor of a newspaper. An Irishman named Laughlin was the editor of the Port of Spain Gazette at the time. I have often wondered if it was he who was assaulted.
Reading the daily papers in 2022, it may appear that the hot-headed Irish DNA is even more pervasive than is recorded. Irish men are known for their alcohol-fuelled pub life, which often ends in a donnybrook or brawl which can happen outside any bar in TT on a Saturday night.
Irish culture is strong on drama, music and literature. If you bother to look at Trinidad's ability to turn out dozens of new calypsoes, art exhibitions, mind-awing Carnival designs, stories and poems as the Bocas Lit Fest, the film festival and even a truncated semi-Carnival attest to, one wonders if the high energy that leads to creativity might not be embedded in the diverse strands of DNA we have picked up over the generations. That education from village primary schools to the most prestigious of secondary schools and the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture had roots deep in the missions that sent teachers here from Ireland cannot be denied.
The connections have continued up until this century. Historian Brinsley Samaroo has recorded resonating accounts of the Irish presence here in the 1900s. How many truly excellent Trini doctors like the legendary Dr Maria Bartholomew and Prof Courtenay Bartholomew trained in Dublin? How many nurses like the formidable nuns who, until it closed, looked after the patients in the leprosarium in Chacachacare? And established and ran schools for girls, at a time when educating girls was not deemed a priority by most families?
The Irish and Trini personalities resonate with each other for a reason.
St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who was actually born in Scotland, was himself a slave for the early part of his life, put to work as a child shepherd, but returned to Ireland as an adult, making him a kind of patron saint of immigrants. This seems appropriate, as most Trinidadian citizens are descendants of immigrants, either those seeking a better life than that they left behind, or refugees fleeing from religious persecution, war or racial discrimination. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
So St Patrick’s Day should be a day when every family with ancestral roots in another country, or, as is the case with almost all Trinidadians, several other countries, should be honouring the Ukrainians fleeing war in Europe, or the Venezuelans fleeing an economic downfall that social scientists and contemporary economists tell us may well be our destiny in the not-too-distant future.