Red shanks, bogtrotters and pirates
Red shanks, bogtrotters and pirates

The second part of a three-part series by Rob Mullally, from the Wild Geese, about the black Irish of Jamaica.

A Jesuit priest, Father J.J. Williams, wrote a book in 1932 entitled “The Black Irish of Jamaica.” In it, he details many of the shipments of Irish folk from Barbados and direct from “The Auld Sod.” The last shipment appears to have been made in 1841 from Limerick aboard the SS Robert Kerr. The voyage took seven weeks. The “Kingston Gleaner” noted of the Irish immigrants: “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 200 years, involving many thousands of mainly teen-aged boys and girls. Barbados, which received the majority of deportees from Ireland, still has a small population of “red shanks” or red legs -- the descendants of Irish slaves and indentured laborers.

The Jesuit order 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 the famous Irish patriot Robert Emmet.

Clearly, the history of the Irish in Jamaica can’t be examined in isolation from its neighbors.

Montserrat, under Sir Thomas Warner, was populated almost entirely by Irish. To this day it is known as “The Emerald Isle.” When you visit Montserrat, they stamp your passport with a shamrock. They also celebrate their Independence Day on March 17th -- St. Patrick’s Day. This is not a tribute not to their Irish roots, but rather 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 as they celebrated 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 was devastated by the eruption of its volcano, and areas now under volcanic ash include the Galway wall, Cork, Kinsale, and Sweeney’s Well. A high percentage of Calypsonians are from Montserrat; they reflect their Irish heritage in their singing.

St. Kitts has built a monument to Irish slavery in commemoration of the 25,000 Irish men and women who were shipped there as slaves. In one particularly grueling story, over 150 Irish slaves were caught practicing Catholicism, and were shipped to tiny Crab Island, where they were left to die of starvation. Many of the Irish who managed to survive, and their descendants, were eventually shipped from the West Indies sugar plantations to the new English settlements in South Carolina.

Lest I be accused of presenting a one-sided view of history, let me hasten to add that there were other Irish, or more correctly Anglo-Irish, who also had an influence on Jamaica.

Both Lord and Lady Nugent had Irish ancestry. George Nugent served as Adjutant General in Ireland. His signature is on the death warrant for patriot Robert Emmet, who was executed in 1803 and whose speech from the dock contained the immortal phrase: “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 the journal of her residence in Jamaica, had the following to say in regards 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 odd 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 Venebles army. He became chief justice and eventually governor of Jamaica, after the tenure of 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 Bogtrotters, 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 Irish Rifles, and the Royal Inniskillings, were all billeted at New Castle. Irish Town and the Cooperage are testimony to the Coopers, who were 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 lonely soldiers religious instruction, usually on how to break the 6th commandment. The Jamaican Constabulary was patterned after the Royal Irish Constabulary, down to the red stripes on the side of their pants.

My personal, all-time favorite Irish personality is a woman by the name of Anne Bonney, the illegitimate daughter of an Irish attorney from County Cork. He emigrated to Carolina, where Anne married a sailor named John Bonney. They sailed to New Providence in the Bahamas, where Annie fell in love with a dashing, handsome freebooter named Calico Jack Rackham. Jack paid off Anne’s husband, but when the governor of the island heard this he would have none of it, ordering that Anne be publicly flogged and that Jack wield the lash!

The couple’s response was to put together a crew of ex-pirates and steal a sloop. For several years, they were the bane of ships in the Caribbean, using Jamaica as their base. Anne, 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. While en route to the Dutch West Indies, her ship was captured by Calico Jack, who was so impressed by her swordplay that he offered her a berth on his ship. History does not record what she thought of his swordplay!

In 1720, Rackham was surprised in Jamaica, at Negril and surrendered without a fight. On the morning of his execution, Anne Bonney visited him and 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,” in other words, they were both pregnant by Calico Jack. Anne returned to Carolina, but Mary died of yellow fever and is buried in St. Catherine.

* Next time: The Irish, still alive and well in Jamaica.

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