DURANT, OK – History was made for the Choctaw Nation on Monday March 12, 2018 when Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar arrived in Durant. Varadkar is on a week-long tour of the United States, a trip annually made by the Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, near St. Patrick’s Day. Among other stops, he will visit Washington, D.C. where he will meet with President Donald Trump. But, Taoiseach Varadkar’s first official stop on this trip was a visit to the Choctaw Nation and it included a major announcement about education.
“We consider it a great honor,” said Chief Batton about the visit. Chief Batton spoke about the Choctaw Nation representatives that attended the dedication of Kindred Spirits, an original sculpture unveiled in Cork, Ireland last summer. The artwork represented the bond between the Choctaw Nation and Ireland. “Our nations have shared a similar history of tragedy, perseverance and strength,” he said. “We have a kindred spirit.”
Taoiseach Varadkar noted that this was his first visit to the Choctaw Nation since taking office in 2017. His opening remarks to those present were spoken in Choctaw, which greatly pleased the largely Choctaw audience.
About their shared history, Taoiseach Varadkar said, it is “a sacred memory, a sacred bond.”
The Irish delegation was greeted by Chief Batton, Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr., the Choctaw Tribal Council, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma Brian Kuester, James Dempsey of U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin’s office; President of Southeastern Oklahoma State University Sean Burrage, officials from Bryan County and the City of Durant, including Mayor Jerry Tomlinson. Also in attendance was Gov. Mary Fallin who said, “I am here in support of the Choctaw Nation and the people of Oklahoma.”
The welcome ceremony was held at the Choctaw RV Park Center, located north of the Choctaw Casino Resort – Durant, a fitting location as Varadkar, before becoming Prime Minister had served as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.
The 12 members of the Irish delegation included Dan Mulhall, Ambassador of Ireland to the United States and Adrian Farrell, Consul General of Ireland to U.S. Southwest.
Varadkar’s father is Indian and his mother is Irish. He studied to be a medical doctor and was a general practitioner before entering politics. He has served as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Minister for Health, and Minister for Social Protection. As Taoiseach, which, he explained, means “chief” in Gaelic, he works with government departments in areas such as developing and coordinating policy on economic and social development, Northern Ireland, and the European Union. His department also arranges the state functions of presidential inaugurations and state dinners and provides a protocol service.
Chief Batton, the Taoiseach and their teams met in the Choctaw Business Center for short bilateral meetings before the ceremony.
The ceremony opened with Assistant Chief Austin introducing selected guests. Lillie Roberts of the School of Choctaw Language gave the opening prayer in the Choctaw language, followed by Brad Joe, who sang “The Lord’s Prayer” in Choctaw, accompanied with signing by Choctaw Royalty BreAnna Jefferson, Jade Cossey and Mya Thomas.
Chief Batton’s words were brief and he reiterated his commitment of the bond between the Choctaw Nation and Ireland.
Roberts again took the podium and related the history of the Choctaw donation to Irish famine victims in the mid-1800s. In great and moving detail, Roberts explained the story of how the Choctaw people came to the aid of the Irish in 1847 during that country’s Great Famine of 1845-1852. When Choctaws became aware of the famine, they gathered $170 (the equivalent of $4,400 today), and through Quakers sent it across the Atlantic Ocean to help feed the starving nation of Ireland. Past words of Chief Batton were recalled from the sculpture dedication, “Your story is our story. We didn’t have any income. This was money pulled from our pockets. We had gone through the biggest tragedy that we could endure,” he said, referencing the Choctaws’ Trail of Tears that had recently taken place. “The bond between our nations has strengthened over the years. We are blessed to have the opportunity to share our cultures, and meet the generous people who have continued to honor a gift from the heart.”
Traditional music heritage was shared with Choctaw musician Presley Byington playing the Choctaw flute, then Ireland Declan Harber performing “An Chailín Álainn,” an Irish ballad accompanied by the bodhran, a hand drum.
Choctaw dancers in traditional clothing performed three dances, followed by a demonstration of stickball skills. Chief Batton and Taoiseach Varadkar rose from their seats to join in the centuries-old Choctaw game. Varadkar’s catch of a ball immediately drew loud applause.
Cultural gifts were exchanged with Chief Batton presenting a set of stickball sticks and the flute played by Byington to the Taoiseach. Taoiseach Varadkar in turn, gave a hurley stick and bodhran to Chief Batton. The gifts represent the similarities in the musical and sporting natures of both Nations.
Choctaw culture and heritage was on display at six tables organized by Choctaw Cultural Services. Staff members also prepared a number of traditional native foods for the group to sample.
Daycare-aged children and their teachers from the Choctaw Nation Child Development Center recited words and phrases they are learning in the Choctaw language. Both the Choctaw Nation and Ireland have their own languages and are striving to keep them alive.
In his closing remarks, Taoiseach Varadkar stunned and elated those present with the announcement that Ireland is starting a scholarship program for young Choctaws to study in Ireland.
“It will begin in the fall of 2019,” he said.
When Chief Batton was asked about what the future holds for the two nations he gave a strong endorsement of “the friendship” of the two leaders and said, he hoped for more visits between the two. “We have many of the same goals – to improve education opportunities, the economy, and opportunities for our families and elders."
Luncheon and a brief tour of development in the area were made before Taoiseach Varadkar departed for his plane to continue his American visit.