Islands of invention: Irish literature in the Caribbean

Brian Moore, Stewart Parker, Maurice Leitch and Eugene O’Neill found in the Caribbean a mirror image of Ireland to explore colonial violence and domination


Occasional references to Caribbean characters appear in Irish literature, but rarely does the region itself materialise as a setting. Benedict Kiely was born in Dromore, Co Tyrone, and grew up in Omagh, where his short story A Journey to the Seven Streams, from the eponymous 1963 collection, is set. In this tale Kiely touches upon the controversial topic of Irish slavery in the Caribbean.

Reminiscing about a family car trip, the narrator recalls his father’s stories of “the Barbadoes where he had heard words of Gaelic from coloured girls who were, he claimed, descended from the Irish transported into slavery in the days of Cromwell”. This passing reference to a fraught and underexplored area of Irish history on an otherwise idyllic family day out in the Northern countryside may seem rather incongruous to some readers. However, it offers a provocative glimpse into a buried aspect of the shared colonial history between Ireland and the Caribbean.

In London Irishman Martin McDonagh’s play The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996) Maureen gives an account of her time in England, where she works briefly as a cleaner alongside an Afro-Caribbean woman. As immigrant labourers, both women face racist remarks from the English. Maureen recounts, “Half of the swearing I didn’t even understand. I had to have a black woman explain it to me. Trinidad she was from. They’d have a go at her too, but she’d just laugh. This big face she had, this big oul’ smile. And photos of Trinidad she’d show me, and ‘What the hell have you left there for?’ I’d say. ‘To come to this place, cleaning shite?’”

Correspondingly, Belfast-born author Linda Anderson’s novel Cuckoo (1986) portrays an interracial relationship between the Northern Irish protagonist Fran and a Jamaican man named Cornelius in the ostensibly “multicultural” space of Thatcherite London. Both characters encounter blatant English racism: Fran is called “a wee Colleen” by her bourgeois acquaintances, and Cornelius determines that there is “No such thing as a Black Briton!”

Despite longstanding Irish and Caribbean historical connections, it is rare to come across an Irish text which is set on a Caribbean island. Irish-American modernist playwright Eugene O’Neill set several of his plays in the archipelago. A small number of contemporary Northern Irish authors have also set their work in the Caribbean, namely: Stewart Parker, Maurice Leitch and Brian Moore. However, I have yet to find any texts by writers from the Republic who have done so. Accordingly, I will discuss Eugene O’Neill’s plays, as well as three Northern Irish texts: Stewart Parker’s play Kingdom Come (1978), Maurice Leitch’s short story Happy Hours (1987) and Brian Moore’s novel No Other Life (1993).

Before becoming a dramatist, native New Yorker and second-generation Irish immigrant Eugene O’Neill had a brief stint as a sailor. During this time he visited the Caribbean, and it is a location which appears in his early plays. Later in his life O’Neill also owned a villa in Bermuda named Spithead, which still stands. In 1919 O’Neill published his collection Seven Plays of the Sea, whose texts are set in imagined island spaces within the Caribbean and elsewhere. His first major Broadway play The Emperor Jones (1920) is also set on an unnamed Caribbean island.

In his stage directions O’Neill writes, “The action of the play takes place on an island in the West Indies as yet not self-determined by white Marines. The form of native government is, for the time being, an empire.” The eponymous African-American protagonist, Brutus Jones, is an escaped convict who absconds to the Caribbean after committing murder. He declares himself emperor and lives in luxury until his disgruntled Afro-Caribbean subjects revolt and he goes on the run once more. The play is an oblique commentary on the legacy of slavery in the Americas. It also tacitly addresses the American occupation of Haiti following the assassination of President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam in 1915, which ended his dictatorship. O’Neill inter-transposes Caribbean and Irish island spaces in order to analyse broader issues of racism and oppression. His invented Caribbean spaces provide a screen onto which he projects anxieties of not only Irishness, but also African-American and Afro-Caribbean identities.

Contemporary Northern Irish authors Stewart Parker, Maurice Leitch and Brian Moore pick up O’Neill’s trope of setting work on imagined or unnamed Caribbean islands as a means to explore complex political issues. Belfast dramatist Stewart Parker’s play Kingdom Come had a short run in 1978 and was met with mixed reviews. This is likely due to its creolised form, which is evident in the subtitle, A Caribbean-Irish Musical Comedy. The play now exists only in typescript and is no longer performed onstage. Parker transposes the events of the Northern Irish Troubles onto the invented island of Macalla. Macalla means “echo” in Irish and the play’s setting is a fictional iteration of Montserrat, the Caribbean island whose salient Irish historical legacy has earned it the nickname “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean”. The play has several musical numbers, which feature lyrics such as “Further west than Londonderry / Somewhere east of Trinidad” and “By the statue of St Patrick / Cricket games are never done / Once a bowler bowled a hat-trick / in 1921 / Sláinte and pip pip / Don’t forget to tip”.

The entangled Irish and English cultural references in these lines and Parker’s allusion to the partition of Ireland in 1921 are indicative of the play’s broader critique of colonialism. Its Caribbean setting enables Parker to draw parallels between the situation in Northern Ireland and the legacy of the British Empire elsewhere.

Maurice Leitch was born in Muckamore, Co Antrim, and later moved to London. His story Happy Hours, from his 1987 collection The Hands of Cheryl Boyd and Other Stories, follows Parker’s example of displacing the events of the Troubles onto a Caribbean landscape. Leitch tells the tale of an IRA informant named Reno and his two police minders who hide out on an invented Caribbean island located “between the Barbados and the Antigua”. In this story, Leitch examines self-perpetuating cycles of violence in the Caribbean and Northern Ireland. Reno gazes at his surroundings and reflects, “He and his like had made these people’s island one vast garbage dump, but they had gone along with it…he realised just how easy it could be to run amok with all those other English-speaking hooligans through the streets…It brought back bad memories, that familiar blend of running feet, curses, breaking glass”.

Similarly to Parker, Leitch traces the colonial histories which subtend Northern Irish and Caribbean spaces. Leitch’s second short story collection Dining at the Dunbar (2009) also portrays Caribbean immigrants living in the UK.

Born in Belfast, Brian Moore later emigrated to Canada and his prolific output is noticeably transnational in its scope. His novel No Other Life (1993) is evidently in dialogue with O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, for the book is set on the imaginary island of Ganae, which is based on Hispaniola. More specifically, the setting is evocative of Haiti in the early 1990s. The Afro-Caribbean protagonist Jeannot is a revolutionary Catholic priest and the first democratically elected president of Ganae. He launches a campaign of ruthless reform in order to bring freedom and justice to his black compatriots. However, like Brutus Jones, Jeannot abuses his newfound power and his charisma quickly loses its appeal. Jeannot’s story is loosely based on that of the real-life figure Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who served as president of Haiti until he was deposed by a military coup in 1991. The coup regime collapsed three years later under American military pressure. In Moore’s novel, an assassination attempt forces Jeannot into hiding, echoing the Emperor Jones’s harrowing flight into the jungle.

It is curious that the handful of contemporary Irish texts which are set in the Caribbean are all by Northern Irish authors. This is perhaps due to a shared sense of neocolonial relations. Just as Northern Ireland remains linked to Britain as a territory of the United Kingdom, many Caribbean islands remain similarly tied to a neo-imperial power. The transatlantic mirroring of these spaces in their texts allows Parker, Leitch and Moore to consider self-replicating patterns of colonial violence and domination. Moreover, following O’Neill, their invented Caribbean isles (Macalla, Leitch’s unnamed island and Ganae) function as screens onto which they project identitarian anxieties. A burgeoning field of academic enquiry into Irish and Caribbean historical and cultural connections has emerged within the last decade and it is likely that more Irish literature which engages with the Caribbean will soon come to light.

Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is an academic specialising in Irish and Caribbean Studies and co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland, forthcoming in 2017 with New Island. Follow her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda

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