Why the Caribbean island of Montserrat celebrates St Patrick’s Day

Destinations

The St Patrick’s Festival has become one of Montserrat’s most popular annual events. This year mark’s the return to the island’s first in-person festival since 2020 and I can’t wait.

I attended my first St Patrick’s Festival in 2003. Back then, Montserrat was still experiencing periodic volcanic eruptions and the makeshift festival grounds at Little Bay were dusty with gray ash. Coconut fronds framed small shacks set up to house the Slave Feast.

Frying pans bubbled with Johnny Cakes and fried chicken as string-band music played on the stage. It was very much a small, locals-only event happening over two or three days but not anymore. Now, visitors from all over the world and many Montserratians return for 10 days of culture, revelry and food.

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St Patrick’s Festival in Montserrat commemorates the struggle for freedom and celebrates life © Montserrat Tourism Board

Why do we celebrate an Irish holiday in Montserrat?

On March 17, 1768, the Montserrat’s martyrs of freedom attempted to overthrow the island’s leaders while they celebrated the Irish feast of St Patrick at Government House. The story goes that a woman overheard the enslaved people’s plans and reported the plot. The rebellion was thwarted, nine of the ringleaders were executed and another 30 were imprisoned and later banished from the island.

In the early 1970s, the local campus of the University of the West Indies began organizing lectures and exhibitions and performances around that date to encourage national pride. These activities were later centralized in the village of St Patrick’s to give it a special day like other communities had, such as St John’s Day held every December 27. Montserrat’s first commemoration of St Patrick’s Day as a holiday was held in 1985.

Why should I go?

While many of Montserrat’s villages and family names still bear the legacy of Ireland’s presence during and after slavery, Montserrat’s version of St Patrick’s Day is a chance to remember the price paid in the struggle for freedom.

It’s a complex juxtaposition of a painful past and the color and vibrancy of life, which in Montserrat, like in Ireland, is vibrant shades of green. The festival does offer attendees the chance to wear their leprechaun hats, four-leaf clovers and the like, but you will also see imagery of broken chains, African apparel and the music and culture of a community learning to remake itself after multiple devastations.

Whether you come for the revelry and rum, or the culture, Montserrat’s St Patrick’s Festival offers many ways to celebrate.

A trio of men tap on drums with their hands during Montserrat's St. Patrick's celebrations
The parties get larger and longer the closer you get to St Patrick’s Day © Montserrat Tourism Board

When is it?

The 2023 festival takes place from Friday March 10 to Sunday March 19 at various locations across the island, including Salem in the south and Little Bay in the north. The landmark Montserrat Cultural Centre in Little Bay, which was built from funds raised at the famous Music for Montserrat concert in 1997 at London‘s Royal Albert Hall, serves as a performance center for concerts, theater productions and national ceremonies.

The Slave Feast has been renamed Heritage Feast and is the highlight of the festival taking place from noon on St Patrick’s Day (March 17) into the evening in Salem village. 

The 10-day festival is a mix of day and night events so careful planning is necessary to get the best of both. Sleep becomes optional the closer you get to March 17.

Where is Montserrat and how do I get there?

Montserrat is a small island in the Caribbean a 20-minute plane ride from Antigua with FlyMontserrat. There are daily international flights into Antigua from Europe, Canada, the United States, and the Caribbean.

Where should I stay in Montserrat?

With only a third of the island currently accessible, Montserrat’s accommodations are nestled in and around the villages. Luxury villas are found in the south from Woodlands to Isles Bay, intimate B&Bs in Baker Hill and the island’s lone hotel Tropical Mansion Suites is a three-minute drive from the airport in the north.

Many visitors also stay with family and friends. It is a good idea to book early if you’re coming for St Patrick’s Festival. Information on properties can be found on the island’s official tourism website Visit Montserrat.

A group of people wear colorful African-inspired costumes during Montserrat's St Patrick's celebrations
There are many street performances and celebrations © Montserrat Tourism Board

What events should I attend?

The days surrounding the holiday are always packed with events, performances and ceremonies. Here are some of the best.

Choose from the many art and culture events

The symbolic opening of the festival takes place with the Lighting of the Flame in Cudjoe Head, a central location on the island, on Friday evening. The short ceremony honors the enslaved and freedom fighters who rebelled over the course of our history. The flame is lit in a Silk Cotton Tree where a runaway enslaved man called Cudjoe was beheaded and hung to discourage other Africans from running away.

Then there are several plays, dance performances and local musical acts on the calendar. Sayings is a theater production that will have a two-night run at the Sir George Martin Auditorium in the Montserrat Cultural Centre. While you’re there, be sure to check out the memorabilia from rockstars, including Phil Collins and Sir Elton John, who recorded albums on the island at the famous Air Studios in the 1980s.

Designers from Montserrat and the diaspora participate in the Afro Madras Fashion Show, held outdoors at Moose’s Place in Little Bay. Along with new spins on the national costume, male and female models show off designs created with African prints and the yellow, white and green madras, which is commonly used in celebrations and cultural events here. The show, like many others, is used to raise funds for local charities and community endeavors to support the elderly and children.

Young and old converge on Salem on St Patrick’s Day for the Heritage Feast and Street Parade. While not mandatory, you can expect to see people dressed in African prints, Montserrat’s national dress made with a green, orange and white madras, leprechaun hats and T-shirts expressing either their Irishness or their Africanness. There are performances by the Emerald Shamiole Masquerades dancing in their colorful headdress to the fife and drum.

Two of the island’s foremost cultural practitioners, Myrle Roach and Ann Marie Dewar, will perform poetry and monologues in Montserrat creole. Many people from the diaspora return for the festival bringing a larger audience for creatives to launch new books.

The Emerald Community Singers, which has been performing for over 50 years, traditionally hosts an evening of Montserratian, Irish and Caribbean folk songs during the festival.

A crowd of people covered in colorful paint powder make their way down a street in a procession
Leprechaun’s Dust is a morning street party with added color © Montserrat Tourism Board

Party all night and join #TeamNoSleep

There’s so much happening, you’ll have to figure out when you will find the time to sleep. There are day fetes, car races, early morning street jams and late-night DJ competitions in the mix.

Parties include Boozey Brunch, Bring U Selectah and Forward, and Wet Dreams. The very popular Leprechaun’s Revenge happens in a secret location called Leprechaun’s Valley. This high-energy fete offers lots of food and drinks with multiple DJs performing throughout the night.

Revenge rolls right into Leprechaun’s Dust which is an early morning road jam with the top mas band Island Diva Mas. Be prepared to get wet and covered in colored dust. Both Leprechaun’s Revenge and Leprechaun’s Dust are ticketed events, and the merch and memorabilia are well worth the price.

The Olde School Ball is a fundraiser which supports the local Meals on Wheels charity. This party, held on the night before St Patrick’s Day is very popular with the over 40s and anyone who loves the music of ’80s and ’90s.

Close out St Patrick’s Day at All White Affair. Party goers dress in white and party under the stars with local and international DJs playing long after the sun comes up.

On Sunday afternoon, hitch a ride to Cork Hill, where the island’s lone racetrack managed by the Motorsports Association is located. Car race lovers get to experience all the noise, music and dust up close.

What’s on the menu?

Pub crawls were added to the celebrations back in 1985 and they are still part of the vibe today. While there are no official pub crawls on the calendar, every local bar will have its own crowd and their bush rum, which you must try. Gary Moore’s Bar in Salem is guaranteed to have a steady crowd throughout the festival.

The St Patrick’s Festival is a good time to get your fix of traditional sweets such as guava cheese, coconut tart, tamarind balls and gooseberry stew. 

At the Heritage Feast, look out for the booths selling ducana — a blend of grated sweet potatoes, coconut and spices cooked in banana leaves. Most local cook shops and many of the booths at the Feast will serve Montserrat’s national dish, Goat Water, which is a rich meat stew served steaming hot. Add this to your list of foods to try.

How do I get tickets and how much are they?

Events like the lecture and Heritage Feast are free to attend. For fetes, dance parties and road fete be prepared to pay USD$20–95 to participate. A centralized location to purchase tickets is the Montserrat Arts Council or Serra events.  

There are always other fringe events in and around the festival. The Montserrat Festivals page on Facebook provides the latest program of activities. You will be also able to catch events such as the lecture and street parade streamed live.

What should I pack for Montserrat’s St Patrick’s Festival?

There’ll be a lot of walking and standing at the many different events that are happening during the festival so bring comfortable sandals and sneakers. If you plan to participate in year-round activities like visits to the Petroglyphs in Soldier Ghaut or birdwatching in the Centre Hills, you’ll want to bring your hiking boots with you. 

Don’t forget extra batteries for your camera, a phone charger and a reusable water bottle.

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