FIRST IRISH GOVERNOR: The tombstone of Sir George Fitzgerald Hill.

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Irish set up T&T's convents, colleges

By Louis B Homer South Bureau

Trinidad is a migrant society developed by immigrants from different parts of the world.

Some arrived as slaves or indentured workers to develop cacao and sugarcane estates. Others came voluntarily in search of better opportunities, while some landed here after fleeing from the harsh realities of war or religious persecution in their homeland.

The main inducement to settle in Trinidad started during the 18th century when the 1783 Cedula of Population came into force, offering immigrants attractive opportunities to own and develop agricultural lands in different parts of the island.

Regardless of race or religion, the immigrants toiled in harmony to build the rainbow society that is Trinidad and Tobago. Among the Europeans who took advantage of the benefits of the Cedula were Irish immigrants who for the most part had already settled in other islands of the Caribbean.

Like other migrants, they later played a key role in the Reform Movement of 1850 which was to change Trinidad from a colony to an independent nation. Their efforts predated the emergence of Dr Eric Williams, Albert Maria Gomes, Dr Patrick Solomon, Uriah Butler and other 21st century advocates for Independence.

Among the early advocates for Independence were a few Irish nationals, which included James Kavanagh, a former mayor of Port of Spain (1853-1854) and an active member of the Reform Movement of 1850. With him were a group of Irish clerics from St Mary's College, Port of Spain, who, apart from advocating for self-government wanted greater recognition for the local Catholic community in Trinidad.

Before his election as mayor, Kavanagh was an agriculturist who owned El Carmen Estate in Central Trinidad and Peru Estate at St James.

The exact date of arrival of Irish immigrants to Trinidad is not known.

According to Fr Anthony de Verteuil, "Even before 1800, the Irish community formed a definite entity in Trinidad." The first known group came under the terms of the 1783 Cedula of Population and settled in Chacachacare and moved later to other parts of Trinidad.

The Irish community had a greater say in the affairs of the colony following the appointment by the British government of Sir George Fitzgerald Hill as the first Irish governor to Trinidad. He arrived in 1833 during the turbulent period of slavery in Trinidad.

However, he was the governor authorised to announce the terms of Emancipation to a rowdy crowd gathered in front of the Old Treasury Building in Port of Spain.

Four years after his arrival, he also had responsibility to sanction the execution of Daaga and three other African mutineers who had staged a revolt at St Joseph in 1837. Hill was already advanced in age when he was appointed governor and, after a short illness, he died in 1839 and was buried on the grounds of Government House, Port of Spain.

During the early years, the Irish community consisted mainly of Roman Catholics. Their prime interest was Catholic education, and propagation of the Catholic faith. Many were appointed to serve in influential positions both at the level of the government and the Church.

Abel Devenish, an early immigrant, was a leading member of the community and had served as secretary of a committee appointed to build the historic Roman Catholic cathedral in Port of Spain.

Other immigrants who came to Trinidad in the early years included the Devenish family who were responsible for developing Peru estate, St James, which had the distinction of being the first sugarcane estate in Trinidad.

In earlier times, it was home to immigrants from Madras. Benares Street, St James, was part of Peru estate and once each year those from Madras celebrated the festival of Firepass and later the Hosay festival.

Other Irish families who made their mark on social and religious life in Trinidad included the Kernahan and Kelly families.

The Kernahans owned large estates in many parts of Trinidad.

Kernahan Village in Ortoire owes its name to this Irish family who lived at Marper Farm, Plum Road.

The family's home was used by the Irish priests stationed at Manzanilla to hold weekly masses until a chapel was built at the foot of a quarry in Plum Road. The family also owned coconut estates in Cedros, Chaguanas, and Sangre Grande.

The Kernahans came to Trinidad around 1840 as estate overseers.

The poor Irish families lived mostly at Patna Village, Diego Martin. Most of them came from St Vincent and Barbados when unemployment was very high in those islands. Among the families who settled in Patna Village were the Hinds and Toyer families.

There are still descendants of the two families living on Toyer Street, Patna Village.

By 1900, the Irish creoles, consisting of lower middle-class families, were numbered among the elite who owned homes around the Queen's Park Savannah, Port of Spain. They became a part of Trinidad society and intermarried with French creoles.

In Port of Spain, they established an exclusive club called Shamrock, which catered mainly for past pupils of St Mary's College.

In the area of religion, Irish clerics made their marks in education and social services. Several nuns belonging to the Irish Dominican Order served at the Leprosarium at Chacachacare. They were also responsible for the establishment of Holy Name Convent, St Joseph's convents, St Mary's College and Presentation College.

St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Port of Spain, served for many years as the main church for the Irish priests serving in Trinidad.

The church was built after the great fire in Port of Spain in 1808. The building is Victorian in style, built of limestone taken from the Laventille quarry.

The statue of St Patrick, with his bishop's mitre and crosier, dominates the facade of the church building. From that environment emerged Roman Catholic Archbishop Anthony Pantin as Trinidad and Tobago's first local Archbishop.

After two centuries in Trinidad, the Irish community has been reduced considerably in numbers. Those remaining and their descendants celebrate the Feast of St Patrick on March 17.

As a community, small as they are now, there remains sufficient information as well as monuments to tell the story of the Irish who came to Trinidad during the early years of the nation's history.

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