By Joey McWilliams
DURANT – Nearly nine months after Chief Gary Batton made a trip to Ireland, the Irish prime minister returned the favor, stopping by the Choctaw Nation as a part of his St. Patrick’s Day trip to the United States.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Chief Batton made a joint appearance on Monday at the Choctaw Casino KOA Campgrounds.
Batton welcomed the prime minister to Choctaw Nation, even comparing Varadkar to his own people.
“In the short time I’ve gotten to know him, I said he’s Choctaw,” Batton said. “He’s very humble. He’s quiet. And yet, he carries himself very well. I appreciate him coming to the Choctaw Nation.
“One of the things I know most people are aware of is that our nations have shared a similar history of tragedy, perseverance and strength. That’s why I believe we have a kindred spirit of caring for others. And I hope and believe we can make a positive difference in our people and in the world.”
Varadkar has been Taoiseach since June 2017 and this is first St. Patrick’s Day trip to the United States.
“It’s a real honor for me to be here,” Varadkar said. “Taoiseach is the Irish word for ‘chief,’ a term that we’ve used to describe the head of our government, as you do as well.
Varadkar said the story of the Irish people and the Choctaw people symbolizes the spirit of St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, perhaps better than anything else.
“Back in the 19th Century, when the Irish people were oppressed, abused, neglected, degraded and starving, when we were at our lowest point, your spirit of generosity was at its highest. You showed compassion to a dying people when they were dying by the hundreds of thousands, which led to our own Trail of Tears across the Atlantic Ocean to seek new life in the United States or in Canada.”
The prime minister referenced the Great Famine of 1847. During that time, the Choctaw Nation, although not far removed from the hardships of the Trail of Tears, put together a contribution of $170 (which would amount to more than $4,000 today) to send food to the starving Irish people.
It was a gift that country has not forgotten.
“A few years ago in Ireland, a representative of the Choctaw Nation called your support for us to be a sacred memory,” Varadkar said. “It is that and more. It is a sacred bond which has joined your people and ours together, I hope for all time. It’s impact was much more than the lives that were saved 171 years ago.
“It is also seen in the way it made us think about our fellow human beings when they are suffering and in distress. It makes us always look outwards as people and nations. It reminds us of the value of compassion and encourages us to try to become a people of hope around the world.
“And those principles are the principles that guide our foreign policy today, whether it is peacekeepers serving with the United Nations or the work of our aid agencies around the world. Your act of kinship and generosity almost two centuries ago is now memorialized in our history books and to be commemorated on many occasions.”
Batton’s recent travel to Ireland gave him the opportunity to see a sculpture to commemorate the Choctaw gift during ‘Black 47.’ It is in County Cork and is called ‘Kindred Spirits.’
“This is our way of saying your act of kindness has never been and never will be forgotten in Ireland.”
Along with Assistant Chief Jack Austin and other Choctaw leaders, Durant Mayor Jerry Tomlinson and members of the Durant City Council were in attendance. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin attended the event, as well.
Presley Byington of Idabel, not only performed a song on a Choctaw flute for the Taoiseach, but also submitted it to Chief Batton to present as a gift. Varadkar was also given a set of handcrafted Stickball sticks, or kabocca, and had an opportunity, along with Batton, to try them out in a demonstration.
In exchange, Varadkar presented Batton with a traditional Irish drum and a hurley stick, which is used in the Irish sport of hurling.
Among other events in the gathering, Choctaw Lillie Roberts gave a history of the Choctaw gift to the Irish in 1847 and students Ireland and Declan Harber of the Irish School of Music in Dallas performed ‘An Chailín Álainn.’
The event was closed in prayer by Chief Batton.