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Bonds forged in hardship stand test of time as Irish donors thank Native Americans 173 years on copy 04

GREAT events are etched in our DNA.

The most traumatic episodes of history weave themselves into our marrow and define who we are for generations, if not forever.

One of the most defining moments in Irish history was the Great Famine — 1845-1849.

During that time, one million of us, out of a population of eight million, perished, while a further one million fled and sought sanctuary in America and Britain.

A quarter of us either died or escaped a starving Ireland in the space of four terrible years.

The trauma of the Great Hunger had a profound effect on what Ireland and its people were to become.

We are still working it out, if truth be told.

The one million Irish who landed in America between 1845 and 1851 helped to forge the young United States, a country barely 80 years old.

Our people created its nascent police forces. It joined its armies, of the north and of the south.


Take a tour of the battlefields of Gettysburg, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his most famous speech as American democracy lay at death’s door, and you’ll see where hundreds of Irish fought and died.

Their pictures line the walls of the nearby museum, some in the Grey uniform of the Confederacy, many more in the navy blue of the Union. Denied a future in Ireland, its young built America.

Similarly, the 300,000-500,000 Irish who landed in Britain during the same period had a profound effect on the cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.

The Victorian quarantine, to keep the diseased and starving Irish enclosed around Liverpool, ensured it became a city of the Irish.

When the cordon sanitaire was lifted, in the mid-1850s, the Irish helped drive the British Industrial revolution in the red-bricked cotton factories of Manchester and on the canal barges of Birmingham, a city of woolen mills.


Many of our people in Britain joined her armies and fought in their tens of thousands in the Great War.

They fell by the splintered trees at Verdun, in the bomb-cratered valleys at Longwy and in the mud at Passchendaele.

They also fell in World War II, on the panic-strewn beaches of Dunkirk, in the thick forests of the Ardennes and on the sadistic jungle trails in Burma.

And after the Second World War, we Irish led the charge in rebuilding Britain, of course. Its motorways are forged in Irish blood, sweat and tears. Its gaudy 1960s high-rises too.

Here at home, the Famine had a more profound effect on those who survived. Those who left for America and Britain left behind empty towns and villages.

Everywhere, the emptiness . . . nothing but the Hungry Grass.

My father used to tell me the story of his great grandfather, who never left the house without a slice of bread in his pocket. For fear he’d come across the Hungry Grass and fall down and die.

The story is a part of me.


Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick and Kerry on the west coast saw population declines of between 30-50 per cent during the Famine.

The young left. The old remained and died with no-one left to pass on the home, the land, the language. The language, the greatest loss of all. More of that later.

The Famine’s aftermath saw even more people leave.

Between 1850 and 1880, our population shrunk by more than three million people. America and Britain were becoming world superpowers.

Ireland was emptying. Ireland was dying. If it weren’t for its cities, Ireland may not have survived the cataclysm of Famine.

The cities of Cork and Dublin were the only places to see population increases.

And it was in those cities that the Irish fought to survive as a nation.


What started with an idealistic William Smith O’Brien and a band of Young Ireland dreamers in 1848 grew into an irresistible republican movement that championed an Ireland free.

Their dream took another 73 years to come true.

The Famine and its aftermath didn’t just shape our political and economic world.
It shaped our souls.

The trauma of that time was so great that the memories refuse to be extinguished.
We inherited them all. The Famine is etched in our psyche.

It’s at the core of who we are. It’s in our very DNA.

Not only were our people dispersed across the world, but we lost our language too.


The way we speak today is haunted by that loss. The melancholy of our speech, the way we don’t say exactly what we mean, the way we communicate without saying anything.

We created a new language, full of the poetry of the language we lost. A unique language.
There’s a reason for that.

It helped us survive.

And now, my point.

At the height of our trauma in 1847, a tiny tribe of American Indians, known as the Choctaw nation, heard of our Great Hunger from an Irish adventurer tasked with resettling people west of the Mississippi river.

They had a whip-round and raised $170 (worth about $20,000 in today’s money).


They spirited the money to a philanthropist in New York, who forwarded the money to the Quakers in Ireland for the relief effort.

It was a tiny gesture, but one that was never forgotten, coming as it did during Black ’47 (in that year three million people were receiving starvation rations at soup kitchens in Ireland).

This week, we returned the favour.

Through social media and news reports, the Irish public got wind of a fundraising drive for the Navajo and Hopi nation — which has been ravaged by Covid-19.

In a spontaneous tribute to the Choctaw tribe, tens of thousands of Irish donations helped push the fundraiser to $3million

The virus has wormed its way into their reservation that straddles the Arizona, New Mexico border.

The death-rate per head of population outstrips New York’s.


In our hour of greatest need in 1847, the Choctaw people stood beside us.

Now, as they battle their greatest threat in four generations, we’ve wrapped our arms around them and said: “We’re with you.”

Gary Batton, chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said on Tuesday that the tribe was “gratified, and perhaps not at all surprised, to learn of the assistance our special friends, the Irish, are giving to the Navajo and Hopi Nations.

“We have become kindred spirits with the Irish in the years since the Irish potato famine. We hope the Irish, Navajo and Hopi peoples develop lasting friendships, as we have.”


People like us — the Irish and the Choctaw — never forget. For memories are all we have.

And if we lose them, we lose our bearings in the world, and it becomes meaningless.
We’re programmed to remember. The great traumas are etched in our DNA.

They make us stronger. They make us who we are.

DMU Timestamp: November 12, 2020 20:50

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