On a recent trip to Ireland, I visited a burial site for victims of the Great Famine, (often referred to as the Irish Potato Famine), which took place from 1845-1852. Located just outside the city center of Donegal, the site was marked by one unassuming sign off the side of a main road. There were no tombstones at the site- just a circular garden in the middle of a small, mossy plot. There were two placards placed on the iron fence surrounding the graveyard. One placard simply described that this was a place where people who died of starvation were buried. It was as unceremonious as the unmarked gravesite. The second placard was bright purple and the inscription was written in Irish, with an English translation below, and what looked like a phrase in another indigenous language placed at the center. The English translation read:
“The school community of the Gaelscoll na gCeithre Maistri donated this circular flowerbed on the 17th of May 2010 to commemorate the generosity of the Choctaw Nation during the great famine of 1847.”
Two quoted phrases at the center of the circle, one in Irish and one in Choctaw, remained untranslated into English. It struck me as a small blow to colonialism.
Only speak the language of the colonizer? Then this message isn’t for you.
I was shocked. I had no idea that the Choctaw Nation had contributed to saving lives during the Famine. But the connection made so much sense- even if it was emotionally overwhelming to try and understand an act of such tremendous generosity at a time when the Choctaw nation and all Indigenous Americans were suffering genocide.
In school we spend about .5 seconds on the “Potato Famine” and we learn that there was a mysterious blight of the potato crop in Ireland and since the Irish only eat potatoes, a million of them starved and over a million others were forced to emigrate. And that’s about it. But here’s the thing…
The potato crop only accounted for about 20% of Irish agriculture at the time.
Ireland was growing wheat, barley, you name it. In fact, Ireland was producing a food surplus at the time of a mass starvation.
As Ocean Malandra points out in Paste; “While the blight did strike and take down most of Ireland’s potatoes, the truth is that Ireland was exporting more than enough food to feed everyone at the same time as the famine was happening. Run as a colony of the vast British Empire, Ireland was a colonial food-producing operation, much like India and the sugar islands of the Caribbean, but locals were not allowed to eat the very food they were producing.”
“In other words, a million Irish starved for no reason other than greed.”
In order to receive government rations, the Irish were forced to work on public projects. No work- no food.
Malandra goes on to say, “Anyone wondering how the richest empire in the world, as Britain was at the time, could allow millions of its subjects to starve while there was a actually a food surplus going on needs simply to look a little closer at the modern-day United States. Nearly 16 million households suffer from food scarcity in the U.S., the richest country in the history of countries, yet we are experiencing a food surplus so huge that the government is actually stepping in to buy millions’ of dollars worth of staples like cheese just to keep the market alive.”
And here we come full circle back to the Choctaw Nation and its generosity to the starving Irish of 1847. You see the Choctaw knew a thing or two about colonialism, oppression, forced starvation and diaspora. The Choctaw Nation had just recently suffered the Trail of Tears in 1831 when they raised some $170 and sent it during “Black ‘47,” the most fatal year of the famine.
21,000 Choctaw died of starvation, malnutrition, disease and exhaustion on the Trail of Tears.
By the time of the Great Famine, the Irish had endured nearly 700 years of British colonialism; denied ownership of their own land, subject to harsh penal laws, indentured servitude, denied access to education and forced to labor both at home and abroad.
Designated as savages and seen as subhuman, the British Parliament sanctioned the imprisonment and exile of Irish rebels for labor in the Caribbean. By 1655, at the hands of Oliver Cromwell, some 12,000 Irish political prisoners had been forcibly shipped to Barbados and into indentured servitude.
The allyship between the Irish and the Choctaw continued over the decades and in 1990 a delegation of Irish citizens walked from Oklahoma to Mississippi to honor the Choctaw that had perished on the Trail of Tears. The Irish and Choctaw delegations continue to raise money for nations that suffer from hunger to this day.
As a third generation White Irish American, I went to Ireland on a sort of pilgrimage. I’ve been a restorative justice practitioner for over a decade and I realized we’ve got way too much watered-down, cultural appropriation happening in the RJ field. Too many White women talking about the medicine wheel and the sacred indigenous circle without even being able to say which tribe’s traditions they’re referring to. I’d been guilty of it myself, and I no longer talk about the four corners of the circle without acknowledging its history, who invited me into this work and why.
But I knew that Ireland had a rich restorative justice culture, most recently nurtured and developed in response to the Troubles, our 30 year civil war that lasted from 1968 until 1998. And I knew that the Irish cross, hanging above so many of the bars I used to frequent in Hell’s Kitchen, is known for the circle it holds in the center. Which I learned on this journey was a leftover from our pre-christian reverence of the sun, and the balance between this world and the next.
And so the Irish and Indigenous American connection made for me on this pilgrimage refocused my work and my values. I saw the impact of White-centered colonialism in a wide-lens. And I saw the power of service and allyship in the face of what feels like unending oppression.
I feel the weight of Native American History month in a new way after my trip to Ireland. I also see that I have much to learn.
*End-note: This isn’t worth a whole post but fellow White people… please… we need to stop saying things are our “spirit animal”. Like that t-shirt you have that says; “Downward Dog is My Spirit Animal?”
We can do this.