Ireland is a highly appreciated destination for a certain sector of travelers seeking something different from the classic sun and beach tourism. Landscape, mythology, music and literature are its main attractions, so it is not unusual for more than one reader to have visited Cork, one of the most popular cities in the country. Well, about twenty kilometers away is Midleton, a small town where some bicentennial distilleries are located (today belonging to the French group Pinord Ricard) where the famous Jameson and Paddy whiskies are produced. There are also a couple of outstanding monuments there. One, in memory of the sixteen activists who died in the first quarter of the twentieth century fighting the British during the Irish War of Independence. The other is really curious because it is a kind of Amerindian feather headdress; from the Choctaw, to be exact, which inevitably leads one to wonder why it is there.
We must go back to 1831, the year in which this Choctaw nation experienced the most tragic moment in its history. The Choctaw were part of what the white people baptized as the Five Civilized Tribes, a group that included Seminole, Cherokee, Creeks and Chikasaws, considering them more advanced and cultured than the others. But this did not prevent them from leaving their lands and moving to the newly created Indian Territory in 1830, when the Indian Remove Act, enacted by President Andrew Jackson, forced them to do so. This journey, made on foot and under difficult conditions, led to the death of thousands of natives. The first to leave were the Cherokee, followed by the Choctaw in 1831.
It did not matter that they were not particularly warlike or that years earlier they had helped Jackson in his war against the Creeks. They had to leave their home in present-day Mississippi and Louisiana to settle in Oklahoma. The journey resulted in the death of two and a half thousand of the total 14,000 Choctaws because poor planning in the distribution of food by the authorities led to starvation and a cholera epidemic. Of course, they never received the compensation they had been promised.
The suffering experienced in that episode was so deeply engraved in the collective mentality of those natives that sixteen years later, when they learned that another people were also going through a similar hardship, they could not remain impassive. Only this time it was not Indian brethren but white people, people who lived thousands of miles away, across the ocean, on a small island called Ireland. And yet, they came to their aid.
The Great Famine, as it became known, began in 1845 as a result of a serious plague of Phytophthora infestans, a parasitic fungus that causes what is called late blight or potato blight because it mainly affects potatoes. And it turns out that in that first half of the 19th century a third of the population of Ireland, mostly rural, fed almost exclusively on this tuber because they worked for large landowners in sharecropping, without receiving a salary and with the cession of the room of a rustic farm for its exploitation in exchange for a part of the benefits, which forced to deliver the cereal harvest to the owners (generally English) and to leave the small family garden for self-consumption only to grow potatoes (because potatoes grow all year round).
When the potatoes were lost season after season due to the plague, three million farmers found themselves in a dramatic situation: they had to deliver wheat but, not being paid for it, they could not buy alternative food. The paradox was that the potato, imported from the New World in the 18th century as an ideal food for the poor, became the tool of their misfortune. With famine and associated diseases, nearly a million people died, while a similar number had to abandon their homes and emigrate to America without His Gracious Majesty’s government knowing how to react (and when they did, it was counterproductive because it facilitated the eviction of sharecroppers for non-payment).
The severity of the situation transcended the island borders and what the British did not do, the Ottomans did… and the Choctaws did. The latter on a much more humble and modest scale, evidently, as they could not come close to the 9,000 pounds in food sent by Sultan Abdulmayid I (despite John Russell’s government, which tried to prevent its arrival because Queen Victoria had only contributed 2,000). But even so, in 1847 they organized a collection and raised $170, a tiny amount, but for them, poor to the point of misery, it was enormous, almost all they had. It would be equivalent to about $5,000 today.
168 years later, in 2015, this moving story reached the ears of artist Alex Pentek, who is precisely Irish. Subjugated by the generous and selfless gesture of the Choctaws, he decided to pay tribute to them with a sculpture – his specialty – which he unveiled in June 2017, in an official event that had considerable media coverage and was attended as guests by some twenty members of the Choctaw Council with its chief Garry Barton at the head. The work, titled Kindred Spirits, consists of nine eagle feathers made of stainless steel on a grand scale (each is 20 feet tall), all different from each other and arranged in a circle so that they appear to be a metaphorical bowl of food.
To create the monument, which he did in his Sculpture Factory studio, Pentek was assisted by art students from Crawford College of Art and Design. So if you visit Cork you can go to neighboring Midleton and in Ballick Park you will find this beautiful tribute to human solidarity.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 6, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cuando los choctaw dieron todo lo que tenían para ayudar a los irlandeses durante la Gran Hambruna de 1847
The Indian Removal Act: Forced Relocation (Mark Stewart)/ The Removal of the Choctaw Indians (Arthur H. De Rosier)/ Historia de Irlanda (John O’Beirne Ranelagh)/Historia resumida de Irlanda (Bruce Gaston)//Choctaw Nation/Alex Pentek