The Black Irish of Jamaica
The Black Irish of Jamaica

By Rob Mullally (for the Wild Geese)

In this three-part series, I will attempt to solve a puzzle that has bothered and intrigued me from the time I first set foot in Jamaica some 20 years ago. What is it about this small island and its people, 6,000 miles from Ireland, hardly the size of the state of Connecticut, and with a population that originated mainly from a different continent, that made me feel so at home? How was it so easy for me -- and so many like me -- to make it my home?

That I was not the first Irishman to set foot on the shores of Jamaica was made blatantly obvious by the Irish place names that abound there. I found 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 Hibernia in Christiana. I traveled Leinster Road, Leitrim Road, 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. Tom Redcam Avenue is named after Tom McDermot, an Irish campaigner against colonialism and slavery, Redcam being a sort of backwards spelling of McDermot.

A drive from Kingston to Ocho Rios takes you through the garden parish of St. Ann, where the lush green fields and stonewalls is testimony to an earlier Irish influence.

Photos of Jamaica here are by Ray Chen, from his book “Jamaica: The Land and The People” by Periwinkle Press, and are reproduced here with his permission. You can contact Chen at

And then there were the obviously Irish surnames, despite the less than obvious features that went with them: the Burkes, the Collins, the Lynches, the Murphys, the Maddens, the Mullings, the Lanigans, and the Walshes. There were the McCarthys, McCormacks, McDermotts, McDonnoughs, McGanns, McLaughlins, and McMorris’s. I found the O’Briens, O’Connors, O’Reillys, O’Haras and O’Meallys -- the list is almost endless, with Maddens being one of the least popular, as Madden’s is the name of the main undertaker in Kingston.

Two of my personal favorites -- 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. That was the year 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. They fled to Cuba, freeing many of their African slaves, who took to the hills and became “Maroons,” guerrilla fighters who wrote the book on tactics for bush warfare.

The English quickly captured Santiago De la Vega, the modern-day Spanish town, but they lacked workers to exploit their conquest. Barbados and the Leeward Islands -- St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Monserrat -- were already under their dominion, and from them the new owners brought manpower to colonize Jamaica.

Records show that the vast majority of the first wave was made up of young Irish men and women, mostly servants, bondsmen, or bonded servants. For all practical intents and purposes, this was slavery by another name as most, if not all, were not there of their own free will.

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 today burned into the Irish psyche. 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 intelligencia, mainly Catholic priests, teachers and Gaelic bards, posed a real threat to a new government. His solution was to institute a system of forced labor, which would also provide British planters in the Caribbean with a massive influx of white indentured laborers.

According to 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 worse in that deal.

Cromwell’s son, Henry, was made Major General in command of the forces in Ireland. It was under his reign that thousands of Irish men and women were shipped to the West Indies. From 1648 to 1655 over 12,000 Irish political prisoners were shipped to Barbados. Although indentured servants (Irish included) had been coming to Barbados since 1627, this new wave of arrivals was the first to come involuntarily.

The Irish prisoners made up for a serious labor shortage caused by the English planter’s lack of access to African slaves. The Dutch and Portuguese dominated the slave trade in the early 17th century and most white landowners in Barbados and the neighboring islands were unable to purchase slaves of African origin.

Numbers vary, but reliable estimates put the number of Irish shipped out at between 30,000 and 80,000 persons. In 1641, Ireland’s population was 1,466,000. By 1652, it was down to just 616,000. The sword, famine, hardship and forced deportation all had taken their toll.

Next time.. History revealed by a Jesuit priest, and female Irish pirates of the Caribbean.

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