Monday, February 19, 2018

When the Irish came


HEAVY RESTORATION: St Patrick's Church on Maraval Road was the virtual headquarters for Irish priests. –Photos: Louis B Homer

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On March 17, the Irish diaspora– including the Caribbean, where in Montserrat, it's a public holiday– will celebrate St Patrick's Day.

Irish nationals and those of Irish ancestry in Trinidad and Tobago gather at various homes to pay their respects to the patron saint of Ireland who was responsible for the spread of Christianity in that country.

The exact date of the arrival of the Irish in Trinidad is debatable, but before 1800 there were a number of Irish families who had migrated to Trinidad following the Cedula of Population by Roume de St Laurent.

They came mostly from Barbados, Grenada and St Vincent where they had migrated earlier during widespread famine and turmoil in their homeland.

At some point in Trinidad's history they held senior positions in government and industry.

Sir George Fitzgerald Hill (1833-1840); was the only Irish Governor of the 19th century. He was over 70-years-old when he took up the appointment. After a short illness, died in 1840, and was buried at the Botanical Gardens in Port of Spain.

The historians record that he was a friendly governor who often walked through the streets of Port of Spain. He had fathered one child in Trinidad, out of wedlock.

Hill presided over the period of the Emancipation of slaves and also the mutiny at St Joseph which was led by Daaga, an African chief and former slave trader.

Irish nationals who came to Trinidad were mainly Catholics, small traders and members of the Holy Ghost Order, Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, Dominicans, bishops and diocesan priests.

Historian and writer Fr Anthony de Verteuil recalled: "Up to 1829 there were no Irish priests in Trinidad, but a large number came later because of their thorough understanding of the English language."

Some of the Irish nationals went to Chacachacare while others had settled in Coolie Block, now called Patna Village, in Diego Martin.

As with most migrants they brought their religion, music and other forms of culture.

In time they became the standard bearers of the Roman Catholic faith and were responsible for establishing schools and institutions throughout the country.

Trinidad's first local Archbishop, Anthony Pantin, was a product of an Irish Catholic education, which led him to become a member of the Holy Ghost Order, whose mission is to promote good character through education.

At one time the St Patrick's Church on Maraval Road was the virtual headquarters for Irish priests. Fr Taaffe, an Irish priest, was responsible for the construction of the church and installing, the first pipe organ in a church in Trinidad.

On March 19, the instrument will be 100 years old. It was made by the English firm of Walker and Sons.

"We still use it on certain occasions," said a member of the church.

It occupies much of the space in the choir loft which provides an excellent view of what is taking place on the ground floor of the church.

The original design of the church was Gothic. Over time, changes had to be made because of structural deterioration. The outer walls were erected with bricks imported from England.

The church is currently undergoing massive restoration to retain its original design.

During the early years of Trinidad's history a few Irishmen had entered local politics.

Three were appointed on the Council of Advice in the Cabildo, and Diego Meany was a former Chief of Police. Martin James Kavanagh was three times Mayor of Port of Spain. The Irish had built Shamrock Club in Port of Spain as a cultural centre for the their community.

Historian EL Joseph recorded that "Even before 1800, the Irish community formed a definite entity in Trinidad, though in the eyes of many there was little difference between Irish and English."

The Irish Creole had considered themselves apart from other groups, but later intermarried with the coloured population.

Apart from the elite Peschier family who owned property in Queen's Park, the poorer people settled and built a community of their own in and around Patna, Deigo Martin, Kelly Village, Caroni and Manzanilla.

At Patna there were the Hinds, Harris, and Toyers families. At Kelly Village there was the Kelly family, after whom the village was named. The Kernahans lived at Manzanilla and were responsible for the village called Kernahan, which is close to Mayaro.

Iris Toyer, born 1922, still lives on Toyer Avenue, Patna Village. Her parents were a mixture of Irish and Scottish.

"My mother was a Whitehead from Barbados and before coming to Trinidad they lived in Grenada. I am a Trini and I have been living in Patna Village all my life. I even made all my children right here. I am Irish by blood but a Trini by birth. I think when my mother named me she left out the H in my name, otherwise I would have been Irish Toyer," she said. One of her nieces is married to a member of the Elms family, and she also lives at Patna Village.

Harris Toyer, another member of the Toyer family, died at age 91 in the village. Some descendants of the Hinds family live at Rich Plain, Diego Martin. Their ancestors came from Grenada.

The Express was unable to find relatives of William Kelly, who was married to a Trinidadian.

Toyer said in the old days the whole place where she lived was bush.

"It was a hard place. I had to wash and iron for people and make garden to live," she said.

Apart from the elites, there is no known organisation in Trinidad to bring members of the Irish community together.