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MADE TO MEASURE

How St. Patrick's Day and Saving Money Come Together in the Same Sentence.

Purely by chance I recently discovered a painless way of saving money.

To celebrate my birthday, John had generously suggested we take a stroll down Bond Street, London’s most expensive shopping district, as he’d like to buy me a dress.  Name me a woman who could turn down that kind of offer?

The thing is, you need both confidence and bravura to even get you through the doors of these glittering halls of haute couture.  The choice is daunting.  Armani, Alexander McQueen, Ralph Loren, Chanel, and that’s just for starters.  I take a deep breath and head for the first door on my left.  A doorman, straight out of Central Casting, ushers us into the high domed sanctuary, where three or four outfits hang minimally on rails.

I know I have a tendency to raise my voice when out of my comfort zone and so it was when I headed for a tiny red beaded number that seemed to be sending out silent “touch me if you dare” signals.

“John, look at this,” I shout.  “It’s beautiful.”

Two immaculately dressed sales assistants swoop.

“Would Madam like to try it on?” says one.

“It’s only just arrived.” gushes the other. “Oh, that colour is so YOU.”

I didn’t know which label to look for first; the size or the price.  I discreetly fumble for the latter to discover that they are asking a six figure sum for this shimmering slip of fabric.  I try to adapt my shocked expression to one of nonchalance, but know I am fooling no-one. The size tag was easier to find.  This dress has been designed for a wealthy, Size 0, Japanese tourist.

“Try it on,” John nobly suggests.  In his mind, I am still the slim girl he met so many moons ago.

“Do you have it in a larger size?” I ask, trying not to shout.

There’s only one assistant helping me now, and I’m obviously wasting her time.

“I’m afraid not Madam.”

I leave with my head down, remembering a previous humiliating shopping experience, this time in Paris, where I ended up buying gloves.

I’m reminded of these shopping failures when John and I are looking at the programme for the forthcoming St. Patrick’s Festival here on Montserrat.  This is a week, mid-March, when the whole island comes together to play music, dance, sing, dress up, eat, drink, gossip, and join in a Parade that can be heard across the seas as it winds its way through the narrow streets of our local village Salem.

I’m on a mission to get myself kitted out in the island’s national costume in time for the celebrations.  Having been part of Montserrat life for over twenty years, I hope I’ve earned the right to wear its distinctive orange, green and white tartan. 

To my surprise, I discover that the introduction of a national costume is as recent as 1987 when a competition was launched for the most appropriate design.  The rules emphasised that the “African/Irish/European/Arawak” origins of the population should be included.  The winning pattern is said to represent all of these cultural roots.  For example, the tartan skirt and white blouse is similar in form to national costumes worn on other Caribbean islands.  The green in Montserrat’s plaid is meant to symbolise African heritage, while its combination of green, white and orange is an obvious reference to the Irish tricolour.

I’m off to find Cheryl Cassell, the island’s doyen of design who, I’m told, operates out of a tiny space beneath the Montserrat Stationery Centre (just opposite the prison) and who, I’m told, can run you up, well, anything you might want run up.  A Carnival costume, bridal wear, cushion covers, uniforms or, in my case, a national dress outfit.

There didn’t seem to be a sign outside her workshop, but a bereft looking tailor’s dummy suggested I’d come to the right place.  No-one had prepared me for the delights of this miniature emporium.  To the right sat four somewhat fearsome ladies, working their sowing machines with Olympian speed, faces implacable.  To the left piles of half-finished garments lay on top of bales of cloth of many colours and textures.  A tiny figure, with perfectly coiffed hair and painted nails was busy ironing.  Behind her a hand written notice warned customers that clothes to be altered must be clean; a deposit of x is expected, with full payment on receipt of garment; no refunds etc.  Cash only. 

As it was a Friday, Basil Chambers, ZJB’s molasses voiced morning DJ was exhorting us all to ‘get ready to party’.

“I’m looking for Cheryl?”

“That’s me.”

I hand her my child-like sketch of a flared tartan skirt and white puff sleeved shirt.

“No problem,” she says, producing a well-worn tape measure. Alexander McQueen this may not be, but I feel at home here and obviously there will be no need of a toile. She flicks the tape measure expertly, writing down a few observations on a scrap of paper.

“Come back next Monday …… Then we see.”

“Any idea how much?”

I notice I’m not shouting.

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Montserrat is proud of its Irish connections, evidenced by the fact that it is the only other island in the world where the 17th March is a national holiday to mark the death of Ireland’s patron saint St. Patrick.  Known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, the Irish heritage is everywhere.  On arrival your passport will be stamped with a green shamrock, the local telephone book is full of names like Allen, Ryan, Tuitt, Farrell, Riley and Galloway.  And the villages the same.  St. Peter’s, St. Anthony’s, St. Patrick’s, St. George’s, Harris’,Kinsale, Friths, Fogarty’s Hill and Cork Hill.

The first records of an Irish presence date back to the 1630s and are attributed to Oliver Cromwell, the English Protestant leader, who exiled many Irish Catholics to the islands either as indentured servants or people who had been defined as ‘undesirable.’  From these harsh beginnings, the Irish population grew, to the point where Irish families became the wealthiest of the islanders and by the mid-1700s accounted for almost 70% of Montserrat’s white population.   Some bought land and established sugar and cotton plantations which they were able to operate with the use of slave labour.

Over a hundred years later on March 17, 1768, when these Irish settlers were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on Montserrat, history records that house slaves at Government House, together with some of their field colleagues, planned to storm the buildings.  It had taken months of clandestine planning and who knows how things would have played out if an allegedly drunken seamstress had not heard two of the leaders plotting the insurrection and subsequently betrayed them?

Nine men were hanged and thirty imprisoned, pending banishment.  The ringleader, known as Cudjoe, was hanged from a silk cotton tree, a chilling reminder of the harshness of enslavement as you drive through the village of Cudjoe Head today, on your way North.

It is 250 years since that momentous uprising, first officially recognised and made a public holiday in 1985 and since 1995 a week-long festival, and its recognition is as important a part of St. Patrick’s Week as is the Festival itself.

I track down Cheryl on her cell phone and discover that my outfit is ready to ‘walk with’. 

Her studio, if anything, is even busier.   I notice that one of her inscrutable seamstresses is sewing the final button on my outfit.

“You wanna try?” she asks, holding my costume in front of me, pointing to a small door behind yet more bales of cloth.  There’s only room for one person in this changing cum cloakroom but even these cramped conditions cannot diminish my excitement of trying on my ‘be-spoke’ outfit.

“It good, it fit,” she says, and she’s right.  Despite my twirls and exclamations of delight, I still fail to get a reaction from her Sphinx like assistants.

John and I look at the programme for the day. Judging by the early start and late finish, it’s going to require a huge amount of stamina if you want to experience all that’s on offer.  You might choose the Leprechaun’s Dust Jump Up which starts at 5.00 am at the Secondary School in Salem, or head up to Cudjoe Head where the now traditional Freedom Run & Walk starts at 5.30.  The Festival Day Parade and Heritage Feast is held in Salem and starts at noon.  And for those for whom time stands still during Festival Week, there’s even more music at the Salem Cricket Ground (must be the prettiest ground in the Caribbean overlooking both a volcano and the sea) starting at midnight with groups Gold Rush ft. and Patrice Roberts & Olatunji headlining.

It’s the Festival Day Parade itself that I’m most looking forward to.

I practise a couple of cod Irish jig steps in my new outfit as John knots his tartan tie and we set off on foot, led by the cacophony of sounds of drums, pipes and brass instruments coming from the village.

Salem has been transformed.  What is usually a sleepy narrow street bordered by a few

low buildings and two churches, is now a kaleidoscope of activity.  Bunting and balloons flutter either side of the road and numerous pop-up stalls tempting you with home cooked fish, chicken, rice and vegetables, have appeared overnight. 

We spectators are a sea of green.

I come face to face with a very tall gentleman, his height exaggerated by a bright green stove pipe hat.  His shirt is adorned with shamrocks and he is carrying two appropriately coloured bottles of Heineken.  Our greetings are drowned by a group of drummers who are following a float from which its tableaux passengers are throwing down white and green garlands.

I strain to hear him.

“I haven’t been back for twenty years. But now I’m home! Happy St. Patrick’s Day!”

“Happy St. Patrick’s Day,” I reply, as he takes my arm and performs a kind of jig as three men dressed in tartan kilts, complete with sporrans, waist coats, bow ties and green bowler hats,  applaud our efforts.

Then come my favourite Montserrat entertainers, the Masquerade Dancers.  This is a group who, if you happen to stumble upon them unprepared, might well make you think you’re witnessing a voodoo ceremony. 

A fusion of African and European cultural influences, particularly the Irish, they dress in brightly coloured long flowing cloaks, adorned with an assortment of streaming ribbons and mirrors, topped off by hats as tall as bishops’ mitres.  Their faces are covered by vaguely threatening masks and their dance steps are a strange mixture of an Irish jig, a square dance and rhythmic foot stamping, which they perform to the accompaniment of drums, maracas, fiddle and fife.

It’s a heady, captivating experience, which is thought to date back to the 17th century, having been invented by plantation slaves, the anonymity provided by their costumes giving them an opportunity not only to safely mock their masters, but to express themselves in dance rituals and drumming.  It’s said that the whip master, who controls the group, represents the plantation owner and the ribbons symbolise freedom.

The sun beats down, the music continues and young and old dance together.

The island’s Police Force, still in full white-gloved uniform and probably the only members of the crowd still sober, watch us with a kindly eye.

“Happy St. Patrick’s Day”, I hear myself exclaiming, for what must be the hundredth time that happy day.

Buy Plenty Mango – Postcards from the Caribbean in paperback, eBook or audio formats from any of the links below.

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