Jamaica — Ireland’s Caribbean next-of-kin

It is just over 30 years since I first visited Jamaica and fell in love with the island, its people and its music. I’ve only been back there once since then and am due to visit the Caribbean nation for a third time next year and I’m already looking forward to it. The thing that struck me most forcibly about Jamaica and Jamaicans on that first visit was how much they were like us in terms of demeanour, friendliness and general disposition. I felt very much at home and indeed ever since, I have always described Jamaicans as the black Irish!

As it turns out, it appears that I was on to something there as apparently up to 25% of the population of Jamaica has Irish roots and apparently, we are the second largest reported ethnic group on the island, after Jamaicans of African descent. When you dig a bit deeper, you discover that a lot of Irish migrated to the Caribbean in the 17th century to places like Jamaica, Barbados and Montserrat. Some went there to manage sugar plantations on behalf of British owners whilst others were forcibly banished to such islands by a certain Oliver Cromwell. Suffice to say, that you’ll find a lot of Irish surnames in places like Jamaica. My surname — Burke — is the 90th most common surname in Jamaica (it’s 16th most common in Ireland) and the Caribbean nation is littered with Irish place names such as Irish Town, Dublin Castle, Athenry, Clonmel, Kildare, Belfast and Sligoville. Indeed, Jamaica’s most famous son, Bob Marley, claimed Irish roots!

Speaking of Bob Marley, one of the many reasons you should visit Jamaica is because of Reggae — not the homogenised, watered-down version that you hear in the charts but the raw, hypnotic and almost chant-like reggae that blasts out from speakers in every nightclub and bar on the island. Jamaica is stunningly beautiful and is a large enough island (roughly half the areas of Munster province) to boast a mountain range whose tallest peak is over twice as high as Carrantuohill at 7,402 feet. Blessed as it is with its Caribbean climate that includes year-round high temperatures and high, intermittent rainfall, Jamaica is a veritable garden of Eden that is dotted with dense rainforest, long rivers, spectacular palm-fringed beaches and impressive waterfalls such as those at Dunn’s River Falls, one of the island’s most popular tourist attractions.

Food lovers won’t be disappointed either as Jamaica brings a lot to the party by way of jerk chicken, ackee and saltfish, red pea soup, chicken curry, cornmeal porridge, plantains, okra, rum, daiquiris of infinite flavours and every cocktail combination you can think of. As Jamaica still has plenty of sugarcane plantations (the other main cash crop on the island is banana), you can buy raw sugarcane in any of the local markets in Ocho Rios, Negril or Montego Bay and chew away to your hearts content.

Being in Jamaica feels like you’re in Africa as typical street scenes are a chaotic, multi-coloured mass of heaving humanity and since 98% of Jamaicans are black, it’s easy once outside the air-conditioned oasis of your resort hotel to feel as if you’ve been magically transported to the streets of Kinshasa or Accra. If you think that it’s now time to start moving outside of your comfort zone and experience something different, authentic and a shock to the senses, then I cannot recommend Jamaica highly enough as, strangely, you’ll feel totally at home!

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