Kindred Spirits: When the Irish Starved, the Choctaw Tried to Feed Them (Podcast)

Our latest “Shoot This Now” looks back on a striking act of charity

Last Updated: April 13, 2019 @ 10:01 AM

As Ireland starved, help came from an unlikely place. How the Choctaw people came to the aid of strangers on an island thousands of miles away is the subject of our latest “Shoot This Now” podcast, available on Apple or right here:

1847 was the darkest year of the Irish famine, sometimes also called the Great Hunger or the Potato Famine. In Gaellic, the native language of Ireland, it’s called “Bliain an Drochshaoil,” which means “hard life,” or “hard times.”

A million people starved. Many more fled Ireland, scattering in desperation across the world.

Their plight drew little help from England, which treated Ireland essentially as a colony despite the two being legally a single country. But it did catch the attention of an unlikely group of people in the United States, who had suffered their own hard life, and their own hard times.

In 1830, the Choctaw people, Native Americans who lived in the Southwest, received an offer they couldn’t refuse from President Andrew Jackson, who had gained fame with his wars on Native Americans. By signing the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, many of the Choctaw agreed to give up 11 million acres of their native land in Mississippi in exchange for about 15 million acres in what would become Oklahoma.

Those who remained behind became U.S. citizens. Those who left embarked on what became known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands died of cholera, exhaustion and starvation as they traveled through harsh conditions to unfamiliar land in what is now southeastern Oklahoma.

So more than a decade later, when they heard the story of the starving Irish, people they had never met, the Choctaw understood their suffering.

Perhaps more than anyone else.

Though hardly rich, they gathered the modern equivalent of about $5,000. Their generosity would confuse some white Americans at the time, many of whom gave much less than the Choctaw.

Today, a sculpture stands in Bailick Park in County Cork, Ireland, as a permanent reminder of the Choctaw people’s charity in Ireland’s time of need. The sculpture, by Alex Pentek, is called “Kindred Spirits” in recognition of the fact that we’re all kindred spirits, no matter the distance between us. (The gorgeous photo above was taken by photographer Gavin Sheridan under a Creative Commons license.)

On every episode of “Shoot This Now,” we talk about stories we think should be movies. We’re frankly astonished that no one has told the story of the Choctaw people’s incredible empathy, or how much their kindness still resonates in Ireland today. We hope you’ll listen to the full story.