Thursday, 13 August 2009

Cromwell's Curse

My paternal grandfather bought four papers on a Sunday, three English – the People, Express and Telegraph, and one Irish – the Independent.
My maternal grandfather wouldn’t even hear of having an “auld English rag” in the house; in fact, it’s a wonder he allowed the Fine Gael Independent through the door for he even had doubts about the veracity of DeValera’s Sunday Press. Being of a Republican frame of mind, he barely believed the weather reports from either journal.
I read all these papers from cover to cover. Each provided a window of escape from an often suffocating small town mentality; even now I can remember rare tidbits of information gleaned from amidst those inky pages in the blissful hours between mass and Sunday dinner.
It was in the Express that I first read about “Cromwell’s Legacy.” I can still picture the article about a group of indigenous Irish who live near the beaches of North-Eastern Barbados.
They should have titled the article “Cromwell’s Curse” for it was the Lord Protector who banished the ancestors of these people to the Caribbean.
After their defeat by the Parliamentary Roundhead forces many Irish soldiers were allowed to sail for Europe. Most people, however, were stripped of their lands and banished to the rocky regions of Connaught. They were the lucky ones.
Many more, including the wives and children of the departed Wild Geese, were transported to Barbados and sold as slaves to the sugar planters. They worked the fields next to the Africans, eventually intermarried, and you can hear traces of an Irish lilt and phrasing in the patois of the racially mixed peoples of the Caribbean.
Not the Red Legs or Bakros, as they were called. They kept to themselves and can still be seen in the poorest areas, a strange pasty-faced, people, often described as “sickly, shiftless, overbearingly proud, stubborn, resentful and inward looking.” Can you blame them?
They were called Red Legs because many Irish wore kilts or knee breeches, causing their skin to be burned badly under the unmerciful sun.
And Bakros? That was a derogatory term bestowed by their African neighbors, for in the Anglican churches the estate owners sat up front, the white and black clerks and colonial functionaries were next, followed by black slaves, and finally the Irish - relegated to the back rows.
Though many priests were banished to Barbados, second-generation Irish slaves forsook Catholicism, probably because new priests could not be ordained without a bishop, and most native Irish clerics did not survive the first awful years.
The Red Legs were despised by their Puritan masters and later by the Royalists, when the monarchy was restored. The Irish, at home and, no doubt, in Barbados too, hoped for justice and restoration of their lands from the new king, but it was not to be.
The Red Legs were deemed untrustworthy, often fomenting rebellion when not fleeing from the plantations. Many crewed on pirate vessels; others escaped to more liberally ruled islands or the Southern seaboard of the new American colonies.
Those stranded on Barbados became indolent, took to drinking cheap rum, scratching out a living on the poorest of land or fishing. They got a reputation for being uppity and possessed of a laughable overweening pride - given their poor circumstances.
While wintering on Barbados, no less a person than Winston Churchill showed interest and thought to help them. But in the end, no one cared for the lowly Backro, while many suggested that because of their miserable lifestyle, they cared little for themselves.
Up until recently they received little schooling and apparently know nothing of their history. They keep to themselves and intensely resent any outside prying or interference. Some social scientists, ironically, feel that their only way to ascend the social and economic ladder is to finally intermarry with the local black population.
But some still remain, a small piece of frozen history, isolated and remote – the curse of Cromwell in the living flesh.
The boy reading the Sunday Express back in Wexford vowed to one day go see them. The man never did. Maybe someday…

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome short comments on Belfast Media Group blog postings but you should be aware that, since we've put our names to our articles, we encourage you to do so also. Preference in publication will be given to those who provide an authenticated full name — as is already the case in our newspapers. Comments should be short and relate to the subject matter and, of course, shouldn't be libelous. And remember, if you find that there isn't enough space on our blogs for your views, you can always start your own. There are over two million blogs out there, another one can only benefit the blogosphere.