A Short History of the Irish in Jamaica
“I only wish the poor Irish were half as well off”
“When Irish eyes are smiling, sure It’s like the morning spring, in the lilt of Irish laughter, you can hear the angels sing; when Irish hearts are happy all the world seems bright and gay, and when Irish eyes are smiling, sure they’ll steal your heart away.”
In this short article l attempt to answer a puzzle that has bothered and intrigued me from I first set foot in Jamaica 20 years ago. What is it about this small island and it’s people, six thousand miles away from Ireland, and with a population that originated mainly from a different continent, that made me feel so at home, that caused me, and many like me to make it our home, and to cause many to ask if “I man born ya?”.
That I was not the first Irishman to set foot on these shores was blatantly obvious from the Irish place names that abound in Jamaica. 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 Leinster road, Leitrim road, Waterford, Longford Road, Killarney Avenue, Sackville Road and Kinsale Avenue all in Kingston and St. Andrew. There are two St. Patrick’s churches and in typical Irish fashion, the church on Windward Road is Protestant and the one in Waterhouse is Catholic!
And then there were the obviously Irish surnames, with the less than obvious features to go with them: The Burkes, The Collins, The Lynches, The Murphys , The Maddens, The Mullings, The Lanigans, The Walshes, The McCarthys, McCormacks, McDermotts, McDonnoughs, McGanns, McLaughlins, and McMorris’s. The O’Briens, O’Connors, O’Reilleys, O’Haras and O’Meallys – the list is almost endless.
Two of my personal favourites, and I might add, two of my good friends have names any self respecting Irishman would be proud of – O’Brien Kennedy and Daniel O’Reilly Kelly!!
To understand the history and background of the Irish in Jamaica one has to go right back to the year 1655, when Admiral Penn and General Venables, having failed miserably at taking Santo Domingo in Hispaniola, and not wanting to return home empty handed, turned their attention to Jamaica, where the Spanish settlers could put up only a token resistance. Having quickly captured Santiago De la Vega, the modern day Spanish Town, they sent to Barbados and the Leeward Islands for fresh blood to populate this latest acquisition.
Records show that the vast majority of the first wave were in fact Irish men and women, some of whom were indentured labourers, but the majority of whom were slaves.
And how did they reach Barbados? For that we have to thank Oliver Cromwell who in 1648 put down a rebellion in Ireland with such savagery and cruelty that his name is still burned into the Irish psyche today. In his own words, after the siege of Drogheda —
“The officers were knocked on the head, every tenth man of the soldiers killed and the rest shipped to Barbados.”
Cromwell drove Irish men and women from their home counties into the relatively barren and inhospitable province of Connaught. The soldiers and the intelligentsia, mainly Catholic Priests, teachers and Gaelic Bards, posed a real threat to a new government, and his solution was to institute a system of forced labour, which would provide British planters in the Caribbean with a massive influx of white indentured labourers. In Thurloe’s State papers, it was ‘a measure beneficial to Ireland, which was thus relieved of a population that might trouble the planters, and of great benefit to the sugar planters who desired the men and boys for their bondsmen and women and Irish girls in a country where they had only Maroon women and Negresses to solace them.’ Speaking from my own personal experience I would say that the planters came off the worst in that deal!!! Cromwell’s son, Henry was made Major General in command of his forces in Ireland and it was under his reign that hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women were shipped to the West Indies.
From 1648 – 1655 over 12,000 Irish political prisoners were shipped to Barbados. Although indentured servants (Irish included) have been coming to Barbados since 1627, this new wave of arrivals were the first to come involuntarily. The Irish prisoners made up for a serious labour shortage caused by English Planters, lack of access to African slaves. The Dutch and Portuguese dominated the slave trade in the early 17th century, and most white land owners in Barbados and the neighbouring islands were unable to purchase slaves of African origin.
A Jesuit priest Father J.J. Williams , in his 1932 book ‘ The Black Irish of Jamaica’ details chapter and verse the subsequent shipments from Barbados and direct from ‘The Auld Sod’ . The last shipment appears to have been in 1841 from Limerick , aboard the “SS Robert Kerr”, a voyage that took seven weeks. The “Kingston Gleaner” noted that “they landed in Kingston wearing their best clothes and temperance medals”..meaning, believe it or not, that they did not drink alcohol!
We thus have records spanning a period of approximately two hundred years and many thousands of mainly teenage boys and girls. Barbados, which received the majority of ‘deportees’ from Ireland still has a small population of ‘red shanks’ or ‘red legs’ – descendants of Irish slaves and indentured labourers, much the same as Jamaicans of German ancestry in Seaford Town in St. James.
The Jesuit order have had a big impact on the Archdiocese of Kingston, and included many Irish Americans – one being the Reverend Thomas Addis Emmet, a direct descendant of a famous Irish patriot, Robert Emmet.
Montserrat under Sir Thomas Warner was populated almost entirely by Irish. To this day it is known as ‘The Emerald Isle’. They stamp your passport with a shamrock and celebrate their Independence Day on March 17th. – St. Patrick’s Day. A tribute not to their Irish roots, but to the fact that on that day the African slaves rose in rebellion, knowing that their Irish masters would be well and truly drunk in the Great House celebrating St.Paddy’s Day!!! There is a shamrock carved over the door of the Governor’s house, and their stamps are printed with an Irish harp on them. Montserrat is currently under dire threat from the eruption of its volcano, and will be devastated if the ‘Galway wall’ collapses. Other areas under threat include Cork, Kinsale, and Sweeney’s Well. A high percentage of Calypsonians are from Montserrat, a reflection of their Irish heritage in singing.
St. Kitts is currently building a monument to Irish slavery in commemoration of the 25,000 Irish men and women who were shipped there as slaves. In one particularly gruelling story, over 150 Irish slaves were caught practising Catholicism, and were shipped to the tiny uninhabitable Crab Island, where they were left to die of starvation. Of the Irish who managed to stay alive under these drastic conditions, and their descendants, many were eventually shipped from the West Indies sugar plantations to the new English settlements in South Carolina.
Lest I be accused of a one-sided view of history, let me hasten to add that there were other Irish, or more correctly Anglo-Irish who had an influence on Jamaica.
Both Lord and Lady Nugent had Irish ancestry, and George Nugent served as Adjutant General in Ireland. His signature is on the death warrant for Robert Emmet, a patriot who was executed in 1803, and whose speech from the dock contained the immortal phrase:
“Let no man write my epitaph …when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth then and not till then let my epitaph be written.”
Lady Nugent in her journal of her residence in Jamaica, from 1801-1805, had the following to say in relation to her African slaves:
“We treated them with beef and punch, and never was there a happier set of people. All day they have been singing old songs, only interrupted by peals of laughter; and indeed I must say they have every reason to be content, for they have many comforts and enjoyments. I only wish the poor Irish were half as well off.”
William O’Brien the second Earl of Inchiquin, was made governor of Jamaica in 1690.
Howe Peter Browne the Marquess of Sligo, was Governor of Jamaica at the time of emancipation from slavery in 1834. It is in his honour that Sligoville, the first freed slave village, is named. Thomas Lynch from Galway, also known as Buckra Lynch, came over as part of Venables army, became chief justice and eventually Governor of Jamaica, after the notorious pirate and Buccaneer, Sir Henry Morgan. He is also supposed to be the man who designed and built Flat Bridge over the Rio Cobre, which makes sense as the bridge has no sides to it, and is at right angles to the main road! This bridge spans the Bog Walk Gorge, and as the Irish (or at least the part I come from were often referred to as Bog trotters, I have no doubt we had a hand in naming that too.)
Various Irish Regiments such as the Earl of Ulsters, the Royal Leinsters, The Royal Inniskillings were all billeted at New Castle, and Irish Town and the Cooperage are all testimony to Coopers brought over to make the wooden barrels for the export of Rum and Coffee. Between Irish Town and New Castle, is the quaint district known as “Red Light” where Irish colleens gave soldiers instructions on the finer art of knitting and embroidery. The Jamaican Constabulary was patterned on the Royal Irish Constabulary, down to the red stripes on the side of their pants.
My personal all time favourite Irish personality is a woman: Anne Bonney, the illegitimate daughter of an Irish attorney from Co. Cork. He emigrated to Carolina, where Annie married a sailor called John Bonney. They sailed to New Providence in the Bahamas, where Annie fell in love with a dashing, handsome free booter named Calico Jack Rackham. Jack paid off Annie’s husband, but when the Governor of the Island heard this he would have none of it, ordering that Annie be publicly flogged and that Jack wield the lash!
The couple’s response was to put together a crew of ex-pirates, steal a sloop, and for several years they were the bane of ships in the Caribbean, using Jamaica as their base. Annie, always in disguise in men’s clothing, took a liking to another young sailor, who to her amazement turned out to be another woman. This was Mary Reid, an English girl who sought adventure as a foot soldier in Flanders and on board a British man-o-war. En-route to the Dutch West Indies, her ship was captured by Calico Jack, who was so impressed by her sword play, he offered her a berth on his ship. History does not record what she thought of his sword play!
In 1720 Rackham was surprised at Negril and surrendered without a fight. On the morning of his execution he was visited by Anne Bonnie, who proclaimed,
“I am sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man, you would not now be hanged like a dog!”
He was hanged at Gallows point in Palisadoes, and his body billeted at a place now known as Rackham’s reef on the way to Lime Cay. Annie and Mary, though both found guilty of piracy and sentenced to death, escaped the hangman’s noose by “pleading their belly” ie they were both pregnant for Calico Jack. Annie returned to Carolina, but Mary died of yellow fever, and is buried in St. Catherine.
Right down to the present day, the Irish and their descendants are still making their mark upon Jamaica. Sir Alexander Bustamante, national hero, founder of the JLP and one of Jamaica’s best loved and colourful political figures, used to boast that he was 50% Irish, 50% Jamaican and 10% Arawak. If that’s not Irish I don’t know what is! The father of Norman Washington Manley, married the Post Mistress at Porus in Manchester. She was the daughter of a man named Shearer, the son of an immigrant from Northern Ireland. Her mother was previously married to Clarke for whom Alexander Clarke, or Bustamante, was the eldest son. Both Bustamante and Norman Manley’s were cousins and both went on to found Jamaica’s two great political parties. If ever a man could have been said to have kissed the Blarney stone and to have “the gift of the gab” it was the Rt. Hon. Michael Manley!! Claude McKay, that great Jamaican radical poet, also of Irish descent, wrote at the height of the Black and Tan war,
“I suffer with the Irish. I think I understand the Irish. My belonging to a subject race entitles me to some understanding of them.”
The late John Hearne, writer extraordinaire, was also proud of his Gaelic ancestry.
The Browne’s of Busha Browne fame, are alive and kicking at YS Farms and still breeding great horses. The McConnels of Bog Walk and United Estates, have worked the land for over 300 years in sugar, rum and citrus.
There are still some Irish priests, nuns and teachers, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on coral reefs and Prof. Of Zoology at UWI is Prof. Ivan Goodbody from Dublin. That Jamaica did not only receive “Saints and scholars” can be seen from this report from The Gleaner in 1842, complaining that the Irish who settled in Jamaica in March, 1841 are
“repeatedly intoxicated…. Drink excessively…. Are seen emerging from grog shops very dissolute, and abandoned… and are of very intemperate habits” !
The leading trainer in the sport of kings is Phillip Feanny, whose mother Molly is from Co. Cork, and who learned his craft from Vincent O’Brien in Tipperary and at the Irish National Stud in Kildare. Neil McCann and Fruit Importers of Ireland, owners of Fyffes, are share holders in Eastern and Victoria Banana Estates, and distribute a significant amount of Jamaican produce in the UK. Guinness – PLC which had its origins in Dublin, now owns Red Stripe / D.&G. Digicel is very much an Irish owned company, and there are strong bonds between JAMPRO and the IDA in Dublin.
Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, who helped to put Bob Marley on the map and the Irish rock group U-2, was born in Jamaica of an Irish father. Sir Phillip Sherlock, former Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, and Jamaica’s greatest historian, is also descended from an Irish family who arrived in Jamaica in 1691.
You see there is much more to us than Irish potatoes, or spuds as we both call them, or ganzies for t-shirts, or Kerry Gold butter, or Irish moss, which we use a tonic, and you use….. well let’s not get into that.
There is more of the Irish in you than perhaps you realize, and more of the Jamaican in us than we care to admit. It’s there in our accent, the love of laughter, of wine, women and song, our love affair of the turf and horses, and the gambling that goes with it; the shared fondness for Arthur Guinness and John Barleycorn; of living for the moment and letting tomorrow look after itself – these are the traits that others readily identify in both nations and why at home and abroad we are “bredren”!