"Screech" is the name of the Jamaician rum popular in Newfoundland.
This is the (true?) story of how Screech got its name.
Before liquor boards were created, Jamaican rum was a popular part of a Newfoundlander's diet, when salt fish was traded in exchange for rum. When the Government took control of the liquor business, it began selling the rum in unlabelled bottles. The product remained nameless until American servicemen came to the Island during World War II.
The story goes like this: The commanding officer of the original detachment was having his first taste. The Newfoundlander downed his drink in one gulp, so the American did the same.. The American's blood-curdling scream attracted alot of attention. An American sargeant who heard the sound from outside pounded his fist on the door and demanded to know, "What the cripes was that ungodly screech?"
The Newfoundlander replied in true Newfie form, "Da Screech? 'Tis the rum, me son."
As all embarassing moments do, the incident spread, and the soldiers were determined to try this mysterious "Screech" to see what all of the fuss was about. The drink was soon their favorite.
The Newfoundland Liquor Board soon adopted the name and began labeling the dark rum Newfoundland Screech.
By Karen Follett and Angel Payne
The Muse, The Memorial University of Newfoundland's student newspaper, February 6, 2003
The Screech-In has become one of the most marketed and popular traditions for tourists visiting Newfoundland since the invention of the boat tour. However, not everybody is supportive of the right to kiss the cod.
A Screech-In is a ceremony where non-Newfoundlanders or “come-from-aways” are inducted into Newfoundland culture by downing a shot of Screech rum, repeating some phrases in a Newfie dialect and kissing a cod. At the end of it all, visitors get a certificate that names them as honourary Newfoundlanders and members of the Royal Order of Screechers.
The Screech-In has a long and ambiguous history – perhaps dating back more than two centuries. The ritual itself has been linked to tricks sealers would play before going out on to the ice, and to rituals performed when sailors crossed the equator.
However, the ceremony that most are familiar with today was born in the mid-70s and evolved out of Newfoundland-themed parties. Since then, the Screech-In has become a huge business boom for some and a headache for others.
Screech is a Jamaican-produced rum that is bottled in Newfoundland. Although its beginnings are uncertain, it is thought that Screech itself dates back 250 years, when Newfoundland fishermen would take salt cod to the Caribbean and bring rum back to the island.
The origin of the rum’s strange name is about as ambiguous as its history. The most popular story, the one that was publicized by the Newfoundland Liquor Corporation, is that a visiting American serviceman during World War II drank the rum and then screamed from the taste. Someone asked what the noise was and a Newfoundlander replied, “The screech? ‘Tis the rum, me son.”
Whether or not this story is true is unknown, but some have suggested that the name has been around since before WWII. Regardless, Screech and the ceremony that made it famous are very much alive and well today.
According to Philip Hiscock, a Folklore professor at Memorial, Screech-Ins as we now know them are only about 25 years old.
“It was invented by a group of people who included Joe Murphy and Joan Morrisey. They were both musicians and they got a gig one night down at the Bella Vista – and they decided that they wanted to do all Newfoundland music.”
“They wanted to do this thing that would be a stage show as well, so they came up with this idea of the Screech-In. Now, they didn’t invent the process itself – what they did was take an older idea of honouring Newfoundlanders and turned it into this idea of a Screech-In,” he says.
Hiscock notes that the idea of kissing a cod was not invented by the group but actually occurred in other places such as England in the 1950s, for reasons unknown.
Sandy Chisholm is a bar owner in downtown St. John’s and has worked as a bartender for over 10 years. He claims to have Screeched-in over 20,000 people and continues to carry out the ceremony almost nightly.
“I’ve done them at the Holiday Inn, at The Battery, I’ve done them at the main ballroom at City Hall, on the J&B [schooner] coming though the narrows, at the Delta, on golf courses, Fairways . . . anywhere that’s anyplace in town, I’ve done a Screech-In at some point,” he says.
“I did actually stop doing it because I just couldn’t take it anymore, my nerves were gone. The majority of my nerves wouldn’t be gone with the people I would be Screeching-in, it would be the Newfoundlanders who would bring them in. They would be just so adamant about ‘Now, now, now, now!”
In the early 90s, an all-out war over the seemingly innocent Screech-In erupted in the opinion sections of local newspapers. Many were opposed to the tradition because they said it made fun of Newfoundlanders and our way of life.
One article said, “This is not laughing at ourselves; rather this is subjecting ourselves to ridicule.”
Clyde Wells, premier at the time, city councillor Andy Wells and Garfield Fizzard, head of the Heritage Coalition of Newfoundland, spoke out against the Screech-In and what it says about the people of Newfoundland.
“They all saw it as something really awful that said awful things about Newfoundlanders,” said Hiscock. “They all came at it from different points of view. I’m not exactly sure that they all agreed on what was so awful about it.”
According to Hiscock, Fizzard saw the Screech-In as something that played up the role of alcohol in Newfoundland, and made some attempts to replace the ceremony with something else to welcome people. However, nothing became as popular as the Screech-In.
The debate went so far that Clyde Wells had his signature taken off the Royal Order of Screechers certificates that people receive when they complete the ceremony.
Screech-Ins were ridiculed so much that those overseeing the ceremonies took them underground for a while until the heat died down.
In an interview with the National Post in July 1999, Newfoundland author Patrick O’Flaherty criticized the traditions carried out that make Newfoundlanders look bad. He described the Screech-In as a “manufactured tradition.”
"Not only do people across Canada believe in this stuff, but some of our own citizens do," he says. "You see these brochures for community festivals and so forth and they're full of distortions and lies.”
The problem, he says, is the exaggeration of stories and traditions that were later claimed as “truths” and backed up by the government. “This is the kind of bullshit that gets spread around when government gets involved with tourism, and there's probably no way to eradicate it.”
This seems to be very much the case, as demonstrated by the later attempts of Clyde Wells, Andy Wells and Garfield Fizzard to stop the tradition they felt made Newfoundland look bad.
“These things are being sold as Newfoundland tradition and history, when in fact they have no relevance at all,” says O’Flaherty.
But who is really selling the Screech-In tradition to visitors to the province?
“For a long time it was used by the Newfoundland Liquor Corporation to sell Screech, but then the Newfoundland government said ‘Stop that’ . . . under Clyde Wells,” says Hiscock. “Nowadays it’s being used by the bars to bring people in.”
Good clean fun
Chisholm is not so sure about the negativity towards Screech-Ins.
“I think it’s just a welcoming thing and I think with the language accent barrier, I think it’s something that brings [visitors] down a bit,” he says.
He adds that it’s a great area of entertainment for both those watching and those participating.
Like many bartenders, Chisholm sometimes likes to pick on the sole female, male, American or Calgarian taking part in the ceremony on any given night. When this happens, the participant usually has to deposit their tongue inside the cod’s mouth during the kissing-the-cod part of the Screech-In.
However, sometimes it’s the complete failures that are the most entertaining.
“There was this one big guy from Buffalo, New York, and . . . everyone in his company who had ever come to Newfoundland had gotten Screeched-in, everyone had a certificate in their office,” Chisholm said.
“He got about a third of the ounce of Screech down and . . . he wouldn’t drink the drink. I said ‘Forget it, we’re done. It’s a Screech-In and if I’ve had 80-year-old women, great grandmothers, drink it – you’re going to do it.’”
The visitor could not down the shot though, and even tried to bribe Chisholm with money for a certificate.
“I said ‘No, I’m not doing that, it compromises all my principles’ and he had to go back to Buffalo without the certificate,” he said.
Chisholm has gone out of his way to make sure he can provide a real Screech-In to his public, including making sure he has an Atlantic driftwood oar for dubbing. He has even spent over $350 on a taxidermy cod for visitors to kiss.
Even on our campus, many come-from-away students have taken part in this ritual. Screech-Ins are performed with international students as part of International Orientation, in residence, as well as with the English as a Second Language program.
Laura Estrada helped to organize the International Orientation events and is herself an international student. She says the Screech-In ceremony acts as a way to introduce international students into some of the crazy ways of Newfoundland.
“I think it helps [them] to have a bit of fun and to be welcomed to Newfoundland the same way other people are welcomed here,” Estrada said. “I remember when I did it. Everyone talked so fast, it was hard to understand them, but it’s a way to make fun and to get comfortable.”
Many houses in residence take part in Screech-Ins too. Ryan Hoult is a Memorial student from Ontario, now living in Rothermere house. He says his Screeching-in took place at their semi-formal last December and that the ceremony happens once every term.
“They called everybody around, about 100 people in the house. They randomly called out names of people and had you step forward, take off your shoe [and] put your bare foot in ice cold water. Then you recited their chant, the Newfoundland saying, ate some fried baloney, kissed the cod, some did so quite graphically . . . and then we shot the Screech,” he explained.
About 40 people from outside the capital city, including Labrador, and outside Newfoundland were Screeched-In at this ceremony.
What is it about the Screech-In?
Many students and visitors to Newfoundland have come to see the Screech-In as a simple icebreaker and a way to get introduced into our people and culture.
Owen Todhunter is with a Newfoundland-themed website that boasts Screech-Ins as a draw for tourists to the island.
“Personally, I don't see any importance in Screech-Ins. To me, it's just good clean fun.
I think people who get Screeched-in ... enjoy it and want to do it because they hear so much about it and it's become somewhat of a tradition for visitors,” he says. “It also gives them bragging rights of being an honorary Newfoundlander.”
So many people get Screeched-in every year that the ceremony has become a phenomenon and a tourism staple for the province. Sports personality Don Cherry has been Screeched-in, as had the late journalist Peter Gzowski. It is even rumoured that the Queen herself kissed the cod while she was here.
Though Screech-Ins have not been heavily researched, those who have been ordained into the Royal Order of Screechers, and many others who are simply intrigued by this strange custom, have written a fair deal about them.
There are accounts of Screech-Ins in many national magazines and newspapers. There was even a short film, made in 1999 by some students from the Niagara Film School, called Freedom of Screech. It looks at some of the controversy of the tradition and why people love it so much. Several of the students who made this film were Screeched-in at Trapper John’s prior to filming.
So what is it that fascinates celebrities, students and everybody in between about Screech-Ins?
Some say the ceremony is a strange custom that seems to make fun of ourselves and, quite possibly, the very visitors we are trying to welcome. Most say it is our unique way of welcoming visitors and showing them that Newfoundlanders are proud and friendly – aspects we like to show off by doing things such as the Screech-In.
“Screech-Ins exist because they say so much important things about Newfoundland, that Newfoundlanders want to hear,” says Hiscock. “They want to think of themselves as wild, people want to think of themselves as drinkers and having this funny language that people can’t pronounce.”