The Auld Sod
A search for the Irish heart of Montserrat
By Andrew McCarthy
Murphy? That’s an Irish name,” I call to the weathered, darkskinned man with a silver beard and dreadlocks as I lean out the window of my car. He’s sitting back in a plastic chair out front of a sagging, emerald-green roadside shack. He’s smiling. Above his head hangs a hand-painted sign – “Murphy’s Corner.”
“This is an Irish country, mon,” he calls back in a thick West Indian accent.
And then I’m sitting beside Murphy, leaning back in a plastic chair of my own, looking out onto the black sand of Carr’s Bay beach across the road to the shimmering water and the hanging sun beyond. Murphy’s got himself a grand perch.
The Irish history on this British West Indian island dates from the early 17th century. When indentured servants from Ireland had done their time on neighboring islands like St. Kitts, they found freedom on this 7-by- 10-mile pear-shaped volcanic outcrop. They took names from the homeland, names like Kinsale and St. Patrick’s, and founded local villages. Some became slave owners themselves. Many intermarried with the local population. A quick look through the phone book today shows testament to that heritage. Names like Farrell and Sweeney, Meade and O’Brian, dominate the pages — there are 54 Ryans. With deep Irish roots of my own, I’ve come to see how much of that Irish legacy is influencing Montserrat today.
“Oh, yeah, my mother was a Ryan,” John Ponteen, a tall, laid-back Montserrat native assures me. Ponty, as he’s known throughout the island, has fashioned an open-air restaurant out of salvaged materials by the rocky cliffs beside Little Bay, on the island’s northwest coast. By nurturing the dense growth of palms and ferns, he’s cultivated an oasis and created his own micro ecosystem (“you don’t want to see my water bill, mon”) that offers lush shade and cool breezes, with the surf crashing on the black sand just steps away. Hummingbirds zip in under a tin roof hung with buoys and artifacts from the island’s past, including a few rusting hand irons and a long machete. He twirls the dangling knife. “It was used for harvesting the sugar cane. That’s all gone now; we don’t produce anything anymore,” Ponty shrugs, “except volcanic ash and some nice people.”
And it’s because of that volcanic ash that there are a lot fewer of those nice people here than there used to be. In 1995, Soufriere Hills, the volcano that dominates the southern half of the island, shocked everyone and came roaring back to life. The eruption, and the ones that followed, devastated and made uninhabitable 60 percent of the island, consuming the capital city of Plymouth. More than two-thirds of the island’s nearly 15,000 inhabitants fled. Those who stayed relocated to the northern portion of the island and started over.
To say that Montserrat has rebounded would be wildly optimistic. Tourism is nearly nonexistent. (I was the only passenger on the plane over from Antigua.) Gone are the days when Montserrat attracted a jet-setting crowd, with rock-‘n’-roll superstars like the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Dire Straits coming here to record in Sir George Martin’s hilltop studio. A walk through the now-deserted facility — located in an area off-limits during higher levels of threat from the volcano — is an eerie experience. Reels of two-inch recording tape were left behind, seemingly in the rush to flee. Decaying speakers and soundproofing are the only evidence of the classic music made here.
With no real town center to anchor the island now, shops and restaurants have sprung up along the main road and given it a rambling charm. Montserrat gets on with business as well as can be expected with a still-active and steaming volcano brewing overhead. Looking out from Garibaldi Hill, over the “exclusion zone” that prohibits intimate inspection of the apocalyptic landscape that Plymouth is today, I see the few buildings that remain, buried to their rooftops in lava and mud. Tracing the flow back up the volcano, clouds of steam and sulfur rise through cracks in the mountain. It looks like nothing so much as a kettle getting ready to boil. “Are these people out of their minds staying here?” I demand aloud to no one.
It then occurs to me these West Indians and the Irish probably have a lot more in common than just a bunch of surnames. It takes a stubborn, prideful lot, with just a little bit of insanity — much like my ancestors back in County Cork — to cling to inhospitable land and fight for their home and then shrug the whole thing off. “The volcano has its ways,” Ponty casually assures me, while another local with Irish roots, Danny Sweeney, shrugs when I show concern about prospects under the volcano. “Such is life, right?”
But it’s more than just a stubborn streak with a gleam in the eye that reminds me of the Auld Sod. There’s a love here for what the Irish call “the chat.” I pass a long, quiet evening on the back porch of Lou and Shirley Spycalla’s home on the west coast, watching a nearly full moon trace a path across the sky, telling stories and gossiping — “Oh, well, if you really want to know the truth about …” Shirley leans forward with glee, and in the twinkle in her eye, I can see my Irish mother-in-law. And at Gary’s Wide Awake Bar (owner Gary Moore is known to fall asleep behind the bar), the locals sip Guinness and break into song just as they do at my local pub in Dublin.
“There does seem to be an unconscious genetic history here,” says Father George, a native of Cobh, Ireland, and pastor of the local Catholic church, confirming my hunch. How else to explain me and Murphy, sitting back in our plastic chairs, as comfortable as two lads, watching the day decline out front of his ramshackle hut. Our chat meanders easily from the uses of white magic to “the lady on the hill” to the benefits of shark oil.
I look at him from the corner of my eye. “Shark oil?”
Murphy gets up and disappears inside. After a minute he re-emerges with a plastic cup filled with a half-inch of what appears to be motor oil. “Drink it right down now. It purifies the system, clears it right out.” I take the cup and tilt it to my mouth. It tastes like what can be described only as liquid shark liver. We settle back.
The sun dips over the horizon, and we sit a while longer.
“Have you ever been to Ireland?” I ask my new friend while the sky still holds a bit of light.
“No, mon, not yet. But I’m gonna go one day. Yes, I am.”
“Well, when you do,” I tell him, “bring along that shark oil; my father-in-law could use some.”