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. In Jamaica alone one will find Irish Town and Dublin Castle in St. Andrew, Clonmel and Kildare in St. Mary, and Belfast and Middleton in St. Thomas. Not to mention the surplus of Irish last names including Collins, Murphy, Madden, Mulling, McCarthy and McDonnough. How did the Irish wind up in the Caribbean, so far from their emerald island? The surnames above may not carry the prestige of a New York Astor or a Schermerhorn, but they tell of a history that is no less important.
Following the military campaigns led by Oliver Cromwell from 1649-1653, Ireland found itself firmly in the administrative hands of the English. The British colonization of the island brought about great cultural and economic change for Irish property-owners, many of whom suffered great financial losses following the war. The Rump Parliament that was in power at the time passed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652. This act punished participants in the Irish Rebellion be demanding that they give up their lands. Rebels—active fighters and dissidents—were viewed as a threat, and an undetermined number were deported as indentured laborers to the West Indies to work on sugar plantations. This practice of deportation would persist due to the interpretation of an edict from James I in 1603 that allowed for the deportation of “rogues, vagabonds, idle, and dissolute persons.” But others who had lost their property or status also left for the Caribbean, and they often arrived as bonded laborers.
The terms of these contracts ranged from four to seven years. And it seems that the hardships these Irish travelers sought to escape continued to plague them. At the hands of the plantation owners, slaves and indentured servants alike could expect the same treatment. This would have been a particularly difficult situation for Irish Catholics working under English Protestant land-owners, as the latter viewed themselves as culturally and religiously superior. Research suggests that as the African slave population grew, the Irish were able to move into better positions of power and political influence—once their labor term had been satisfied—by participating in the military defense of the islands. But many also went on to become merchants in their own right as well.
Nonetheless, the Irish presence in the Caribbean had been firmly established. While most European settlers on the islands confined themselves to a single island giving rise to the identifications we know today as Hispanic Caribbean, French Caribbean, and British Caribbean, the Irish looked for opportunities and found homes wherever circumstances took them. They’re found on practically all of the Caribbean islands.
The Caribbean is unique in this way. Its role in the colonial power struggle has brought together people from many different backgrounds, resulting in a cultural mixing not truly seen elsewhere. In Trinidad, for example, the combination 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): Guinness mixed with carnation milk—I can vouch that it’s really quite good.
So in the middle of the parades and happy hours today, if you can spare a moment, 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 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.
Update: An earlier version of this article referenced an unqualified source that conflated the difference between bonded laborers and slaves. The information taken from this source has been removed, and a more transparent discussion that highlights the nuances of this period has been instated.
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- Block, Kirsten and Jenny Shaw. “Subjects without an Empire: The Irish in the Early Modern Caribbean,” Past and Present, no. 210 (Feb 2011): 33-60.
- 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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