Another Emerald Isle ( My piece from The Irish Times)
On the Caribbean island of Montserrat, a much-depleted population is still recovering from the volcanic eruptions of the mid-1990s. Mary Russell visits some of its Irish-descended residents as they prepare to celebrate St Patrick’s Day
They say that if you drink from the spring called Runaway Ghaut, on Montserrat, you’ll return to the island. One Saint Patrick’s Day, while trekking through the bamboo forest, I did just that, and now here I am again, being guided along the rainforest’s Oriole Trail by James Dailey, one of the island’s three rangers.
Montserrat – only 12 miles long – is everybody’s idea of heaven. Amid brilliant turquoise waters, with a rainbow of plants and exotic birds and a hot, breezy climate, its population lived, until recently, in peaceful bliss. But in July 1995, Soufriere Hills volcano spouted fire, covering the island in burning ash within minutes. The eruption, after 350 years of dormancy, engulfed the capital, Plymouth, destroyed the airport and forced the evacuation of villages in the path of the lava flow.
One of the threatened villages was Saint Patrick’s, where every year the main celebrations for March 17th took place. (Montserrat and Ireland go back a long way; many of the island’s early Europeans settlers were Irish.)
Dailey, known as Scriber because of his excellence at school, comes from Saint Patrick’s. Using his machete to hack a way through the rainforest, Scriber tells me what happened: “All the schools were destroyed. We were moved to temporary accommodation for a year, all crowded together. Some wanted to go back. That first Christmas, one man did go to have a look on Christmas Eve. In Saint Patrick’s, December 26th was always a big day, with music and dancing and people coming out on the street with ice boxes and goat water. He thought maybe we could risk it. But luckily we didn’t, because the lava suddenly overflowed and Saint Patrick’s was blown off the map. All our homes: gone.
“Then, in June 1997, it happened again, in a different part of the island, a fertile part where things grew well. Some farmers crept back without anyone knowing, because they wanted to get their crops in, but round about 1pm the volcano erupted, and in four minutes the burning lava had covered the land and killed 19 people, most of them farmers.”
Scriber and his wife and two children accepted assistance from the British government – Montserrat is a British overseas territory – and the stricken family moved to Birmingham. In fact, the exodus reduced the population from 12,000 to just under 5,000.
Scriber lived there for six months before returning to help put the island back on its feet, though the family is still separated. His wife is staying in England to care for their sons while they complete their education.
It is easy to see why Scriber needed to come home: Montserrat is where his heart lies. As we push our way through the tangle of vines, he points out the round hole of a tarantula spider, shows me trees that have been cut down to make fish traps, tells me about the African black rat introduced as food for the slaves.
All the time he is listening for the pride of Montserrat’s rainforest: the golden oriole. Pressing his thumb to his mouth, he makes a soft sucking sound to imitate a predatory bird, hoping to flush out an oriole. High in the forest canopy, a few leaves stir and then, glinting in the invisible sun, it suddenly happens: a brilliant flash of black and orange – followed by stillness. It is a moment of magic deep within the cool greenery of the forest and a very, very long way from Birmingham.
Throughout the Caribbean, Europeans and Americans lounge on the beach, scud along on their catamarans or drink cocktails as the sun flames down over the horizon. But behind the scenes, working to make their stay comfortable and stress-free, are teams of tour operators, refuse collectors, taxi drivers, waiters, all aware that nature can strike a deadly blow at any moment.
Carol Osborne, an American with Irish connections who, with her husband, Cedric, runs Vue Pointe, the family hotel, has had to evacuate guests twice and close down completely once. When the volcano erupted, 64 of her original staff of 65 were forced to leave the island, and the present team all had to be trained from scratch. Nevertheless, the hotel – a marvellous collection of round cottages clustering round a swimming pool – flourishes, and the Osbornes are looking to the future, when the original golf course, now under 15 feet of grey sludge, will be redeveloped in the next bay.
Down by the beach, Montserratian Danny Sweeney (“the best local fisherman on the island”) supplies his wife’s cafe, Jumpin Jack’s, with wahoo, tuna and mihi-mihi.
Family names are not the only reminders of Ireland: the shamrock crops up all over the place and together with the volcano is the tourist board’s logo. The island’s historian, Sir Howard Fergus, however, has an understandable point to make: “We are neither African nor Irish but Montserratians, and we need to define ourselves as that.”
The Caribbean syndrome of the migrant worker mirrors Ireland’s own history, though of course we have enjoyed a reversal of fortunes. After the eruptions, Roselyn Cassell-Sealy, executive director of Montserrat’s credit union, found that other credit unions were willing to donate money, among them the Irish League of Credit Unions International, which, with the Department of Foreign Affairs, gave the equivalent of €63,500 to the island.
Equally, when Carol Osborne visited Ireland to meet relatives in west Cork, she met up with Dwyer Barbour of the Park Hotel in Mullingar. A few months ago, he and his colleague Damian Molloy spent two weeks training hotel staff on Montserrat. “We were shocked,” says Molloy, “to see abandoned houses covered in ash with the cars still in the garages and pigs running wild about the place.”
One unexpected advantage of the volcano is that with much of the island now an exclusion zone, a greater diversity of animal life has returned to the rainforest. Maybe ecotourism is where the island’s future lies.
“We’re not looking for mass tourism,” says Ernestine Cassell, the island’s director of tourism. “What we would like is for visitors to Antigua to take a day or two away from sailing and make the short flight to Montserrat to enjoy a very different sort of holiday.”
At the brand-new Gerald’s Airport, I meet an American who, having a break from an Antiguan diving holiday, has arrived on one flight, has hired a taxi to take him round the island and is to leave on the next flight – an overall journey of some three hours. Not quite enough to see everything that Montserrat has to offer, but long enough to drink the waters at Runaway Ghaut, perhaps, and guarantee another visit.