Friday, November 17, 2023

How the Irish and the Choctaw formed a lasting connection during the Potato Famine


Cindy Ervin Huff

Today I’d like to talk about something that touched my heart while my husband and I toured Ireland a few months ago. My husband and I took an eleven-day tour of the Island of Ireland, both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Of all the wonderful things we saw, one memorial on the side of a country road in Delphi touched my heart.

Photo by Cindy Huff

                                The inscription read:

This Valley witnessed one of the darkest moments of the great famine. On a bitter cold  day in 1849, up to 600 starving people gathered in Louisburg seeking food or a ticket to Westport workhouse. They were told to apply to the Poor law officials that were meeting the next day at Delphi, ten miles away.

Some died overnight. The rest struggled across the mountains, following sheep tracks and wading streams. When they arrived at Delphi, the Poor Law officials rose from lunch, refused to help and told them to return. No one knows how many died by the wayside of cold, hunger and exhaustion. Some were buried where they fell.

This monument was built on the very spot outside Delphi where the starving Irish perished. I was stirred by how heartless the officials were. But there was more to learn.

When we reached Cork, something resonated with me, especially since we had recently moved to Oklahoma. There, amidst ancient buildings, is a monument dedicated to the Choctaw Indians. Before me was an artist rendering of Natives Americans with a plague thanking them for their help. Why would they bother? Did the story of those who died on the road near Delphi touch their hearts, all the way from Indian Territory, United States, too?

A little historical information about the famine

 We all learned about potato famine in Ireland caused many to immigrate to the the mid-1800s. And if you ask most people, including me, they assumed all of Ireland was hungry. Not so.

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Historically, the English were constantly trying to conquer the Irish and bring them into the fold of the Empire. It took until 1928 for Ireland to become an independent nation.That does not include those counties that make up Northern Ireland.

During the centuries of British rule, the Irish were considered lower-class citizens. The Irish Catholic, Presbyterians (my ancestors) and anyone not a member of the Church of Ireland (Angelican Church,same as Church of England.)  were denied many opportunities for a better life. Most, especially the Catholics, were forbidden an education. They were considered not intelligent enough to learn new things, such as reading English. They were described as immoral characters. Their language (Gaelic- now referred to as Irish) was banned, as well. 

Many Irish Catholics were sharecroppers to absentee landlords who lived in London. Their property managers did all they could to make more money for their lordships and for themselves. The sharecroppers were given a portion of the land to grow crops to feed their family. They were required to work the landlords’ holdings which consisted of other crops besides potatoes, such as barley, wheat and hay. The farmers would pay their rent for their parcel of land out of what they made from their own crop. Rent kept increasing. Leaving less and less for the farmer’s family.  

Of all the crops grown in Ireland, the potato yielded the most per acre, so this was what the sharecroppers grew on their parcel. It kept well and would feed them and their livestock through the winter. By the mid-1800s, the landlords had raised rents so much the man of the house often worked in England or Scotland as a day laborer to pay his while his family worked their land.

When the potato blight hit Ireland the poor wrestled with starvation. Despite appeals, the Irish government, under English orders continued to export other food crops out of Ireland. Any job outside of agriculture provided an income to purchase other food stuff such as bread, milk, cheese and vegetables. The sharecroppers, however, had no money after their potato crop failed.

The Salvation Army and the Quaker missionaries raised funds for food and sent food parcels to the destitute Irish. Many Irish in the US and other countries sent monetary support and food stuffs. Still, it wasn’t enough. The famine went on for years.

British Parliament ignored their need. Many in the Parliament had the attitude what will be, will be, in regards to the starving Irish Catholics. Some even looked at it as God’s judgment on the  wicked Irish, and they should not lift a hand to intervene on God’s design.

Over the years of the famine, two million Irish immigrated to the US and Australia. Another million died of disease and starvation. Of those on ships headed to American, many died because they were already too weak to travel. Landlords paid their passage on what were christened death ships.

The parallel of the Native American plight

Sixteen years earlier, the Choctaw were the first of the Civilized tribes to be removed to what is present day Oklahoma. Civilized tribes refer to those who had assimilated into the white culture. Those were the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole tribes.

The Choctaw had been forceably removed from their ancestral homes in the Southeastern United States to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River as part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit set the details of the removal. The Choctaw agreed  to move to Indian Territory, (Oklahoma) with the promise they would never have to move again. It was over six hundred miles trek over rugged terrain.

The government promised to provide food and wagons to transport all their belongings. Such an undertaking had never been done before. Some Choctaw sold their land outright rather than wait for the government to give them fair-market value. By the time all the details were in place, it was November,1830.

 A terrible blizzard hit and  the Choctaw were forced to walk in the bitter cold to their new home. The wagons could not make the journey, due to bad road conditions, so the tribe traveled on foot all the way to Indian Territory. It is estimated that up to 6,000 died on the way. They called their exodus the Trail of Tears.

The natives, like the poor Irish, were considered less intelligent than their white counterparts and undeserving of their land. Manifest Destiny: the right of white Europeans to spread across all of America and claim it from the natives was their justification.

The Native American gift to the Irish

The Choctaw saw themselves in the plight of the poor Irish, facing the same type of genocide. The English wanted the land free of those pesky Irish farmers so they could sell the land to wealthy investors. Reading about them in the newspapers called the Choctaw to action. Their collection of one hundred seventy dollars is well over five thousand dollars in today’s economy. It still may not seem like much, but remember their new financial situation at the time. The memory of the land agent’s greed burned bright in their hearts. They sent their collection to an Irish Aid Society who saw that it went directly to those most in need. 


In 2015 Kindred Spirit a large stainless steel sculpture of nine Eagle feathers  by artist Alex Pentek was commissioned by the town of Middleton, County Cork. A beautiful thank you to the Choctaw for their financial help during the famine. Each of the nine feathers is unique. The circle of feathers forms a bowl representing a gift of food.

An official unveiling ceremony and dedication occurred in June 2017 by Chief Gary Batton of the Choctaw Nation, and Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr., along with Counsellor Seamus McGrath, County Mayor of  Cork and another 20 delegates from the Choctaw Nation were in attendance.

Truly the sculpture represents a connection between the two peoples through their suffering. Even before the sculpture was erected, the link between the two brought a group of Irish in 1986 to America to walk the Trail of Tears. The connection with the Irish and the Choctaw still stands today. Two people groups rising from the ashes of persecution to make a place for themselves in our modern world.

Did you know these facts about the potato feminine and the Choctaw contribution?

Cindy Ervin Huff is a multi-published author of historical and contemporary romance. She loves exploring historical places with her husband of fifty years. A recent transplant to Oklahoma, she has found new places to explore and is enjoying a slower lifestyle. Visit her website:click here Or contact her on social media. Find all her books on her author page on Amazon.





1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this today. I find it so heartwarming.