Two ancient peoples. A modern-day connection. Nothing divides the Choctaw people from the Irish except for the ocean.
Both the Choctaw Nation and Ireland were, in effect, colonized by outside powers. Their ancient tongues almost became extinct, and have been rescued from oblivion and made into working languages again through concerted effort and sophisticated approaches. Both peoples have successfully preserved their cultures and traditions.
Their relationship began in 1847, when the Choctaws, who had only recently arrived over the ruinous “trail of tears and death” to what is now Oklahoma, took up a donation and collected over $5,000 (in today’s money) to support the Irish during the Potato Famine. The famine ravaged Ireland during the 1840s.
The Choctaws’ donation was sent to the town of Midleton in County Cork, south of Dublin. There, many decades later, the townspeople realized their aid had come from a people who were themselves in a very unique set of circumstances – reestablishing their society and their government after the long and painful migration.
Irish President Mary Robinson visited the Choctaw Nation in 1995 to rekindle and reestablish the friendship, and thank Choctaws for their aid to Midleton. Some years later, in 2017, a sculpture commemorating the Choctaws and their gift, known as “Kindred Spirits,” was dedicated in a beautiful park in Midleton.
In 2018, Ireland’s prime minister, or Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, visited Choctaw Nation headquarters to thank the Choctaws and initiate the first of a continuing series of yearly scholarships for Choctaw students to study in Ireland. Ireland’s Consul General visited the Choctaw Nation a year later.
In 2020 the story took a new twist when a pandemic known as the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, caused disruptions around the world. The death toll was particularly acute in the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation. The Irish, stating that they were “paying it forward” with their aid from the Choctaws in mind, took up a very sizeable donation with which to aid and assist the Navajo and Hopi.
“Adversity often brings out the best in people. We are gratified – and perhaps not at all surprised – to learn of the assistance our special friends, the Irish, are giving to the Navajo and Hopi nations. Our word for their selfless act is ‘iyyikowa’ – it means serving those in need. We have become kindred spirits with the Irish in the years since the Irish Potato Famine. We hope the Irish, Navajo and Hopi peoples develop lasting friendships, as we have. Sharing our cultures makes the world grow smaller.” — Chief Gary Batton
- 1795: Spain cedes territory north of the 31st Parallel to the United States, including the territory of the Choctaw Nation
- 1801: Ireland established, in effect, as a colony of Great Britain
- 1830: Choctaws sign the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek with the United States, ceding traditional lands in Mississippi in favor of new land in the west, in the Indian Territory
- 1831-1833: Choctaws emigrate to the Indian Territory over the “trail of tears and death”
- 1845: Crops begin failing in Ireland due to infestation of P. infestans
- 1845 (through 1852): Over one million people die of starvation or from disease caused by malnutrition; over one million more Irish emigrate to other countries
- 1847: Choctaws collect a donation of $170, over $5,000 in today’s money, with which to aid the Irish
- 1848: A report on the Americans’ aid to Ireland notes, “The largest part was contributed by the children of the forest, our red brethren of the Choctaw nation.”
- 1906: Choctaw tribal government is dissolved
- 1907: Oklahoma becomes a state; Choctaws become citizens of the new state
- 1921: Most of Ireland becomes independent from Great Britain
- 1976: Congress passes a law providing for the return of Indian self-government
- 1983: Choctaws enact a constitution and reestablish their government
- 1990: Choctaws leaders visit County Mayo, Ireland to participate in the first annual “Famine Walk,” a reenactment of a walk by desperate Irish to their landlord in 1848
- 1992: Irish visit the Choctaw Nation and participate in a trek from Mississippi, to commemorate the original Trail of Tears
- 1992: Plaque commemorating the Choctaws’ aid installed in Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, since 1715
- 1995: Irish President Mary Robinson visits Choctaw Nation tribal headquarters and thanks the Choctaws for their generosity toward the Irish
- 2017: Sculpture, “Kindred Spirits” by Alex Pentek, commemorating the Choctaw aid and continuing friendship, dedicated in Bailick Park in Midleton, County Cork, Ireland
- 2018: Ireland’s prime minister, or Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar visits Choctaw Nation tribal headquarters and says, “A few years ago, on a visit to Ireland, a representative of the Choctaw Nation called your support for us ‘a sacred memory’. It is that and more. It is a sacred bond, which has joined our peoples together for all time.”
- 2019: First recipient of Choctaw Ireland Scholarship begins her studies in Ireland
- 2020: Crediting the kindness shown to them by the Choctaws in 1847, the Irish “pay it forward” and take up a donation to send to the Navajo and Hopi, to aid them during the coronavirus pandemic
Articles and Books
- The Irish Are Repaying a Favor from 173 Years Ago in Native Americans’ Fight Against Coronavirus (Washington Post, 2020)
- Irish Return an Old Favor, Helping Native Americans Battling the Virus (New York Times, 2020)
- The Choctaw of Oklahoma Stepped Up to Help the Irish During the Potato Famine (Public Radio International, 2019)
- Why the Choctaw People Sent Their Meagre Funds to Ireland (Atlas Obscura, 2018)
- The Long March: The Choctaw’s Gift to Irish Famine Relief (Tricycle Press, 2001)
Lithographs and Paintings
- Lithograph, An 1849 depiction of Bridget O’Donnell and her two children during the famine (Wikipedia)
- Lithograph, Scene at Skibbereen During the Great Famine (Wikipedia)
- Painting, An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of Their Store (Wikipedia)
- Painting of Skullyville, Choctaw Nation in 1834, by George Catlin. In 1848 the Choctaws took up their donation for Ireland here. (Wikipedia)
- Painting of Tul-lock-chish-ko, or “Drinks the Juice of the Stone,” dressed for the sport of stickball. George Catlin painted Tul-lock-chish-ko at Skullyville, Choctaw Nation in 1834. (Wikipedia)
- Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship Programme (Chahta Foundation)