Montserrat Tourism Board
Montserrat offers a very rare opportunity to witness the active Soufrière Hills Volcano from a safe distance.
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updated 3/16/2007 3:50:40 PM ET 2007-03-16T19:50:40

Come sundown on St. Patrick’s Day I found myself awash in Guinness and Gaelic music at a place called Gary Moore’s, one of half a dozen stops on a pub crawl that stretched from late afternoon into deep evening. Gary held court behind the bar, pouring drinks, flirting with ladies, and spinning tales about patrons past, such as Elton John. “He knew more about cricket and football than any man I’ve ever known,” said Gary in a brogue that I could barely fathom.

Anyone would swear they were in Ireland. But step outside and the illusion shatters beneath the weight of the heavy tropical air and the rumble of a nearby volcano. This is Montserrat – the self-proclaimed “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” and the only place in the world besides the Irish Republic where St Patrick’s Day (March 17th) is an official public holiday.

Getting your passport franked with a green shamrock upon arrival at the island’s tiny airport tempts you to think that all this Celtic stuff is just a ploy to attract more visitors. But this pear-shaped, 39-square-mile island really does have a strong Irish heritage. Many of the 4,700 residents trace their roots (and surnames) to Irish settlers who first arrived in the 1630s. The harp and the Union Jack on the territorial flag also derive from the days when both emerald isles were part of the British Empire.

“It was a miniature story of the [America’s] Pilgrim Fathers,” explained Howard Fergus, a local poet and former acting governor of Montserrat. “A group of Irish Catholics came to St Kitts in the early 17th century, but there was friction with the British Protestants who already lived there. So the Irish sought out a nearby island, Montserrat, 60 miles to the southeast, where they could practice their faith unmolested … although,” he added, “the British did appoint Irish Protestants as the colonial administrators.”

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The Irish brought in slaves to work the plantations, and over the next 400 years the Irish and African islanders gradually blended together into the Celtic-Creole hybrid that flavors modern Montserrat. The most vivid expression of this mulligatawny stew is St. Patrick’s Day, which culminates a weeklong slate of Irish and island-themed activities where locals easily outnumber the visitors.  

Among the first is the annual St. Patrick’s Week Barbecue at the Vue Pointe Hotel just outside the Exclusion Zone around the fiery Soufriere Hills volcano, which dominates the island’s south side. My arrival was met with a banner proclaiming Cead Mile Failte, “a hundred thousand welcomes.” And as a band with a female trumpeter belted out “Danny Boy” and other Irish tunes, hundreds of people feasted on a Caribbean barbeque and Gaelic-inspired dishes like spicy goat-water soup (yes, it’s Irish in origin).

On St. Patrick’s Day, my alarm roused me before sunrise, and made my way to a dew-drenched cricket pitch in Salem on the west side of the island, listening to calypso as I munched my way through the various breakfast stalls and watched the end of the annual Freedom Run, a 10K jaunt across the island’s rolling green terrain undertaken by everyone from die-hard joggers in $300 running shoes to Catholic nuns clad in flowing habits.

Then it was off to Festival Village at Little Bay, a cove on the island’s northwest coast, where a flea and food market unfolds beneath the thatched roofs of a mock slave village. “You gotta try some of dat sauce,” says an old woman named Betty, pointing to a dish called “pig’s trotter” soup. “Dat’ll put hairs on yer chest.” And it seemed to do just that, fortifying me for the rowdy Salem pub crawl and for Gary Moore’s, adding a twist to my tropical-island Irish holiday.  

Each issue of ISLANDS Magazine explores the most beautiful island destinations in the world, from tropical island outposts to the sophisticated gems of the Mediterranean. Our top-rate photographers and writers discover the quiet beaches, boutique hotels, and unique cultural experiences that make island travel unique.

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