My Irish ancestors all came to America between 1847 and 1849 — during the time of An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, when the British Empire hoarded all the food they were producing on colonized Irish land and left the native people with nothing but diseased potatoes to survive. This plight resonated with the Choctaw Nation, who lived in and around modern-day Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and of course had had their own experiences with a systematic genocide at the hands of a land-greedy colonizing force just a decade earlier. So the Choctaw rallied their resources, and sent $170 over the Atlantic to the starving people in Ireland — the equivalent of either $5,000 or $20,000 dollars today, depending on your calculations.
To commemorate this generous act, a statue was erected in Midleton, County Cork in 2017.
But solidarity is even better than a statue. Which is why, as Native Americans have disproportionately suffered from the impacts of COVID-19, Irish people rallied to the cause, raising more than a million dollars for the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund on GoFundMe in just a few days. The effort was largely spearheaded — or at least publicized — by Irish journalist Naomi O'Leary, who also spoke about the historical relationship and the legacy of colonialism on the Irish Passport podcast:
From O'Leary's Irish Times article on the initiative:
Many comments on the GoFundMe page referenced the Choctaw donation. Some read “Ní neart go cur le chéile” ["No strength without unity"] and others simply “Ireland remembers”. “173 years ago, the people of the Choctaw nation showed Ireland unimaginable generosity,” wrote donor Michael Foy. “I am donating today in memory of our shared past, and to help overcome this crisis together – just as we did nearly two centuries ago.”
Cassandra Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation and one of the team organising the fundraiser, burst into tears as she told The Irish Times of seeing the donations flood in.
“We noticed that we were getting a lot of donations from Ireland so we were wondering why . . . sorry I get emotional talking about this part,” Ms Begay broke off. “And I learned about what the Choctaw did for the Irish people, and it was so beautiful.”
You can still support the Navajo and Hopi GoFundMe campaign, which is up to $2.5 million as of this writing.
Coronavirus: Irish donate to hard-hit Native Americans to repay famine aid [Naomi O'Leary / The Irish Times]
Irish return an old favor, helping Native Americans battling the virus [Ed O'Loughlin and Mihir Zaveri / The New York Times]
Image: Kindred Spirits Choctaw Memorial in Midleton, Co. Cork, Éire, taken by Gavin Sheridan via Wikimedia Commons/CC 4.0