Friendship through Famine
“A mist rose up out of the sea, and you could hear a voice talking near a mile off across the stillness of the earth… when the fog lifted, you could begin to see the tops of the potato stalks lying over as if the life was gone out of them. And that was the beginning of the great trouble and famine that destroyed Ireland.”
A Letter of Gratitude to the Choctaw Nation

Of all the devastations to befall Ireland, few have been as harrowing as the Great Potato Famine. Striking in the fall of 1845 and lasting for almost six years, an Gorta Mór left over one million Irish dead as a result of starvation, exposure and disease. When the emaciated peasants looked to their colonial masters for support, the British minister for famine relief responded that the events were, “a mechanism for reducing surplus population… the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of [Irish] people.” During the famine years, Britain exported out of Ireland approximately £500,000 of government produced food. The fact that it had been British policy to constrain the Irish to tiny plots of barren land suitable only for growing basic tubers was conveniently forgotten. When famine hit, the Irish would starve. It was an inevitability brought on by nature but predetermined by acts of man.

Within such a hostile environment, the Irish felt that they had few friends. And yet, 4,000 miles away, the news of the ruin in Ireland had reached the people of the Choctaw Nation. The Choctaw, too, were familiar with how society hemorrhages in the face of tyrannical governance, and in the Irish they saw shadows of their own past. Only fifteen years before, the Choctaw had been the victims of a forced march from their homelands, a wretched exodus that they call the Trail of Tears. But the long march from Mississippi to Oklahoma had made the Choctaw acutely sensitive to the anguish of those desperately in need, and when news arrived of what was happening in Ireland, a group of concerned tribal members promptly rallied together to raise funds for those Irish still clinging on to life.

“We helped the Irish because that’s who we are and what we are,” explains tribal council speaker, Delton Cox, “we remembered the sorrow to befall our people, and we felt the same for the people in Ireland. $170 might not seem like much, we were poor, yet each of us eagerly gave to help our brothers and sisters.”

A softly spoken man with a musical Oklahoma twang, Delton is the embodiment of the connection enjoyed by Ireland and the Choctaw. Some of his ancestors were Brysons, a name historically associated with a rugged peninsula on Ireland’s west coast named Donegal. Delton compares his two lines of heritage, drawing on a shared cultural landscape centered on kindness and support.

“This way of being is important to us,” he continues, “my granddaughter is part of a short film about kindness and compassion, so she is learning to take this on through her life.”

There is a certain familiarity in Delton’s fondness for his granddaughter. Like the Choctaw, the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is one that is highly treasured by the Irish, and it was from my grandmother that I first learned about the kindness of the Choctaw during the Great Hunger. Born in the spring of 1913, the Ireland that young Evelyn Johnston knew was a place still at the mercy of illness, violence and political unrest. Her own grandparents had lived through the famine, the proximity of the event made even closer by the lingering uncertainty in the world around her.

With just enough animation, this kindly matriarch impressed upon me her belief that Ireland’s unlikely allies had been sent by the divine. But there was more. Not only had the unprompted charity of the Choctaw resonated deeply with my grandmother, but since her own father had met the great Lakota Sitting Bull during a visit to the United States in the 1880s, Evelyn felt she had just the faintest sense of connection with the native people of North America.

In turn, Evelyn’s son, my father, ensured that the stories of our connected past were not lost, and until the day he died he passionately advocated that the Choctaw were to be remembered as our friends. But such is the way of Ireland, a misty island crisscrossed by a deeply engrained culture of oral history. Sure, I learned about Medb, Cú Chulainn and Finn, yet of all the exciting stories I heard growing up in rural Ulster, the relationship between Ireland and Oklahoma was the one that captured my imagination.

Indeed, it seems that the relationship enjoyed by the Choctaw and Irish has captured the imagination of more than just my family. In 1990, a delegation of Choctaw officials participated in an annual walk in County Mayo to commemorate the Doolough Tragedy, a starvation march that occurred during the Hunger, while in 1992, a group of Irish anthropologists retraced the Trail of Tears in a gesture of reciprocal solidarity. Most notably of all, the Choctaw dubbed Ireland’s then-president, Mary Robinson, an honorary chief.

And the beautiful thing is that the friendship continues. Later this year, a monument of gratitude to the Choctaw shall be unveiled in Midleton, County Cork. The sculpture will take the form of an empty bowl cupped by feathers, a poignant embodiment of the Choctaw embracing a starving people. The news was warmly received in Ireland, and it was due to the announcement of the Midleton statue that I first got in contact with the Choctaw Nation. Not only did Chief Gary Batton promptly respond to my enquiry with considerable grace, but in the continuation of the close relationship between our people, I was extended the offer to write this article.

So what to say in closing? Well, my thoughts are simple, and as I write in my adopted country of the United States, thousands of miles from the whitewashed cottage of my childhood, I fondly reflect that the friendship between the Choctaw and the Irish continues to blossom. Few, if any connections have lasted so long, and certainly none have known as much mutual respect, compassion and laughter as that enjoyed by Ireland and the Choctaw.

Look how far we have come. Now, let’s see how far we can go.

March 2019