The Fascinating Tale of the Irish in Jamaica

Author OLIVE COLLINS keeps SOPHIE GRENHAM captivated with her accounts of the Irish in Jamaica, the subject of her NEW NOVEL, The Tide Between Us …

Photograph by Eoin Rafferty

Did you know that twenty-five per cent of Jamaicans claim Irish ancestry? To those unfamiliar with Ireland’s murky Caribbean links, the notion might seem ostensibly far-fetched. However, after chatting to bestselling author Olive Collins about her new book, The Tide Between Us, my curiosity about this period in history has sky-rocketed.

Collins is the sort of magnetic character that only has to speak and she holds court. Shortly after arriving at the apartment she shares with childhood friend Mary Dollard, Olive humorously recounts skipping an Irish family Christmas in favour of colourful Cuba. Mary and I giggle as a deeply satisfied smile spreads across her face. The Tipperary native describes smugly reclining on a sunny balcony in Havana, admiring the vibrant scenery while puffing on a big fat cigar. I’m told I should visit Cuba before the country becomes “normal”, now Castro is dead. I take this to mean before the uniquely preserved culture is lost forever to globalisation – she may have a point. I quickly learn there’s more where this story came from, for Olive began exploring the world in her early 20s, always with a voracious hunger for knowledge.

As Olive entertains us with her travel memories, I notice that the two friends have put on quite a spread. The table is laden with homemade scones, jam and butter and chocolate cookies. I don’t know to what I owe this honour – I normally don’t require more than a cup of coffee during meetings. In ways, Olive and Mary are more harmonious than most married couples – short of finishing each other’s sentences. Raucous laughter regularly fills the room as we chat easily.

It was during a spell in an Israeli hostel during the late 1990s, that the seed for The Tide Between Us was planted. Olive’s Middle Eastern work experience includes plastering, helping in a Kibbutz, as well as kitchen work with Orthodox Jewish women and later with Palestinian women. Olive recalls a particularly unedifying incident she witnessed in the hostel.

“I saw a fella being thrown down the stairs – he was lucky to be alive,” she says, tensely. “The man who threw him later tried to intimidate me and it was one of my first experiences of trying to stand up to somebody in a very threatening, menacing environment. And when I did, he backed down. I always remember that as a moment of enormous clarity. It was all over ego and power. The guy he threw was a heroin addict and he wanted to prove a point.”

On a much lighter note from that time, but one that would remain ingrained in her mind, Olive remembers a Saint Patrick’s Day party, where a small black man approached her group. By that stage in the evening, everyone was particularly giddy from the festivities. To their astonishment, the man sang his own version of The Wearing of the Green, claiming afterwards to have Irish roots, which at the time seemed outlandish – for obvious reasons.

Much has been made of how strands of the Jamaican lilt sound uncannily akin to the Cork or Kerry cadence. This is no coincidence, for Ireland’s relationship with Jamaica stretches back to the 1650s, when Cromwell shipped Irish people over to work in the fields alongside African slaves. Many later passengers arrived under false pretences – they believed they were traveling to America. Other sorry cases were criminals sent to accept their punishment. The rest were simply exiles.

This piece of history has been scantily documented, due to the exit of many from Jamaica from the 19th century, with much property burnt to a crisp. Olive has gathered the lion’s share of her knowledge from the journal entries of Thomas Thistlewood, an Englishman from Lincolnshire who oversaw a sugar cane plantation. The source material is grim at best, particularly where the treatment of women is concerned. Olive found the reading experience harrowing, to say the very least, leaving precious little to the imagination.

“They [owners] used to just take women and rape them in the street,” she says, with a slight catch in her throat. “I couldn’t get over it. In fact, I’m not easily shocked. I’ll probably never be shocked after writing this book but it was terribly crude. They saw black people as animals to provide work and satisfy their urges.”

The Tide Between Us sets sail from 1821, around the time of slave emancipation. The story is told in two parts; first from the perspective of a ten-year-old Kerry boy named Art O’Neill and 100 years later, through the eyes of 81-year-old Yseult Ffrench. Olive immaculately illustrates how the indentured Irish and the African slaves worked side-by-side on plantations all over Jamaica, mostly near the Black River, in a rather unusual setup. While the Irish population of the island carried the same duties as their African colleagues, their white skin meant they never quite held slave status. The overall living conditions were also vastly different to what one might have witnessed in the American slave trade, as the Irish and Africans of Jamaica moved freely and sold produce.

“Their colour was the only thing that separated them,” Olive says of the Irish workers. “The [African] slaves had nothing to look forward to really, whereas the Irish knew they would be free – they were indentured servants.”

Little did Olive and I realise that day, as we reflected on the hardships of the islanders, what extreme political unrest would soon hit America; after the presence of confederate flags and statues symbolising the slave-owning Southern states of America were challenged. Fast-forward 24 hours, and images of White Nationalists marching with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia dominated news headlines. Ultimately, Olive isn’t sure if we should “whitewash” history, instead contemplating middle-ground. Right now, the possibility of a compromise remains to be seen.

One can’t help but wonder if Olive taught in a previous life, such is her devotion to fact, accuracy and the entrancing effect of her words. She showed the same research discipline with her debut novel, The Memory of Music (2016), which begins just before the 1916 Rising. Olive’s grandmother happened to be a schoolgirl runner for the IRA, and that fascinating revelation contributed greatly to her story. Olive knows such minute details as what the weather was like on the morning of the rebellion and how tenement dwellers filled holes in the floor with broken glass to keep out the rats.

The author says, beaming, “When I wrote The Memory of Music, I had different people emailing me from different parts of the world and it was just the most magnificent feeling ever. The Tide Between Us is a historical story. It’s educational and it’s nicely told and I hope they like it.”

For now, the weary storyteller is enjoying a well-earned break. Undoubtedly, she won’t rest for long, as Book 3 already beckons. With her superb comedic timing, Olive often jests about acquiring a temporary boyfriend before hard work resumes. A fleeting encounter…unless the fellow is a Native American, for which she’s willing to make an exception. Olive’s next novel is set in the American West and she is already deeply engrossed in research.

The Tide Between Us (€14.99) is published by Poolbeg Press and available nationwide.

@SophieGrenham

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