The most significant tragedy in Irish history was the ‘Great Famine’ of the mid-1800s, considered by many to be an act of genocide by the British government of the time because it allowed food to be exported out of Ireland even though the people were left with nothing.
A million died of disease and starvation, and another million were forced to leave Ireland in order to survive. It was an event that had a devastating effect on the country.
The suffering of the Irish people was not ignored by everyone. Relief funds were set up by the public in Britain and America amongst others and thousands of pounds were raised.
The Irish were also helped by an unlikely source in the Native American tribe, the Choctaw Indians, who had heard of the famine and raised their own fund. A total of $170 – the equivalent of €68,500 today – was raised by the tribe and sent to the Irish relief fund of America.
The Choctaw had suffered their own tragedy
The Choctaw were possibly driven by their own experiences of 16 years earlier, when they were forced from their homelands in what is now known as Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. The American government took the land from them, and the Choctaw were forced to march the 500 miles north to Oklahoma to the land the government had designated to them.
The march is known as the Trail of Tears. More than half of the 21,000 members of the Choctaw tribe perished on the journey from starvation and exhaustion. Ironically, the American President at the time was Andrew Jackson, whose parents had emigrated from Ireland.
Sixteen years later the Choctaw tribe heard of the Irish famine and began their own relief fund. The year was 1847 and was the peak of suffering in Ireland.
British authorities were making the Irish people work on public projects before they would receive donated food. Thousands were too weak to work and were therefore given no help. The year became known as ‘Black 47’.
The two communities were forever bonded
The kind donation of the Choctaw tribe created a bond between themselves and the Irish people that has never been forgotten.
In recent years the two communities have come together to honour the actions of their ancestors. In 1990, leaders of the Choctaw tribe visited Ireland to retrace the steps of the first annual Famine Walk in County Mayo, where Irish peasants walked to the home of their landlord to plead for help.
Two years later, members of an Irish commemoration group walked from Oklahoma to Mississippi to follow in the footsteps of the Choctaw tribe that walked the Trail of Tears. They raised more than $700,000 which they donated to charities working to end poverty in Africa.
Both groups now work to raise money and aid to help sufferers of poverty and starvation today.