Trenchtown Warfare – An Irishman’s Diary on the little-known parallels between South Monaghan and Jamaica

Bob Marley   in Paris in 1980.  Photograph: AP

Bob Marley in Paris in 1980. Photograph: AP

 

I can’t have much in common with the late, great reggae singer Bob Marley.  But listening to his No Woman, No Cry yet again recently, it occurred to me that, stretching a point, there is at least one thing. We both grew up in a Trenchtown.

In his case it was a place of that actual name – a poor enclave of Kingston, Jamaica, named after a 19th-century Irish emigrant. Not that Daniel Power Trench built it. Before there were people there, he kept cattle on the land, in a so-called “Trench Pen”. The name stuck.

My Trenchtown is officially known as Carrickmacross. But its history is inextricably linked with one William Steuart Trench, who may or may not have been related. In any case, this Trench served two spells in Carrick as land agent, just before and again after the Famine.  

He also wrote a famous memoir of his time there and elsewhere, Realities of Irish Life. The book attempts to explain his more controversial policies, including assisted emigration, whereby tenants in arrears were given debt forgiveness and the fare out of Ireland. Even his many critics allowed that WST was the relatively humane face of a cruel system, although – speaking of Trench pens – one commentator paid him this dubious compliment: “Even at his worst he gave his tenants the care that a good stock-breeder gives to his stock.”

So there you have it. From now on, whenever I hear Bob Marley reminiscing about his time in “the Government Yard in Trenchtown” (“yard” means housing project in Jamaica), it may take me back to childhood days in the salesyard in Carrick, helping my father sell calves. 

There’s a physical trench in Trenchtown, apparently –an open storm-water drain that runs along one the main north-south thoroughfares, dividing the place in two. It’s said to be a common misconception locally that this is where the name derives.

Tropical rains being less common in Monaghan, there are no such storm drains in Carrick.  

But there is a deep, historical divide running along the Main Street (also a north-south axis).

And ironically, given his surname, WS Trench straddled it.

The town used to be the boundary between south Monaghan’s two great estates, one owned by the locally resident Shirleys, the other by the absentee Marquesses of Bath.

As you travelled north on Main Street, everything to your left (the west side) was Shirley country; to the right was Bath’s. The split remains evident today. On the Bath side, it’s mostly vestigial now, in the form of distinctive stone buildings with the monogram “B”.  

By contrast, the west side has been the site of an epic modern legal battle, as shopkeepers fought for the right to buy out the ground rents Shirleys still owns.

Back in the 1840s, WS Trench began as a Shirley agent. Then, after a spell in Kerry, he came back to Carrick, crossing the street to work for the other estate. He spent the rest of his life in the town, where he died of natural causes, although that wasn’t for the want of trying by local Ribbonmen.

Some of his book’s more entertaining passages describe the plans, and several attempts, to assassinate him. In this, he had the advantage at least of knowing that his killers would have to get close to fire an accurate shot.  

But it was the nature of his role that he was often approached by people handing him petitions. So at the height of his (justified) paranoia, he effectively declared martial law around his person – letting it be known that any close approach would be regarded as hostile and he reserved the right to shoot first.

He survived unharmed. As, in a later period of trouble, did the town’s RIC barracks during the grandly named Battle of Carrickmacross (1921), when it was attacked from Republicans in buildings on the opposite side of Main Street. The walls were thick, and the rebels’ guns were not powerful. After several hours, the conflict ended in a scoreless draw.

Soon afterwards, there was a new and more profound boundary in the locality. But despite its proximity to the Border, and the modern Troubles that had descended a few miles away, Carrickmacross was a peaceful place to grow up in the 1970s.

You couldn’t say the say for Bob Marley’s hometown, a dangerous place then.  

Whereas the most violent-sounding thing about my Trenchtown, as I recall it, was the aforementioned sales yard - now long gone - which was owned by a family called “Gunnes”.