MIDLETON, COUNTY CORK, IRELAND – On Sunday, June 18, the Choctaw Nation was honored at a dedication of the sculpture Kindred Spirits in Midleton, County Cork, Ireland. Kindred Spirits is a breathtaking sculpture comprised of nine stainless steel eagle feathers that reach almost twenty-three feet towards the sky.
Representing a bowl of food for the hungry, the piece evokes the story of how the Choctaw people came to the aid of the Irish in 1847 during that country’s Great Famine of 1845-1852. When Choctaws became aware of the famine, they gathered $170 (the equivalent of $4,400 today), and sent it across the Atlantic Ocean to help feed the starving nation of Ireland.
Chief Gary Batton and Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr. were a part of the Choctaw delegation that attended the special ceremony in Bailick Park.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Chief Batton said, “Your story is our story. We didn’t have any income. This was money pulled from our pockets.” Referencing the Choctaw’s Trail of Tears that had recently taken place, he said, “We had gone through the biggest tragedy that we could endure. The bond between our nations has strengthened over the years. We are blessed to have the opportunity to share our cultures, and meet the generous people who have continued to honor a gift from the heart.”
The Irish Examiner also ran a statement from Joe McCarthy, Cork County council’s East Cork municipal district officer, who noted that the Choctaw people were still recovering from their own injustice.
“But they put their hands in their pockets and they helped strangers. It’s rare to see such generosity. It had to be acknowledged. They bestowed a blessing not only on the starving Irish men, women and children, but also on humanity.”
With an eye toward the commissioning of public sculptures and the promotion of history, heritage and tourism, Kindred Spirits was among capital projects approved by Midleton Town Council.
Kindred Spirits, an original artwork by Cork-based artist Alex Pentek, is a reminder of the good that can come when people pull together their resources to benefit others.
Speaking at the ceremony, Pentek said, “There is this sort of feeling of rising above it by standing together. I think even today as much as ever, standing together against adversity from those who are persecuting, is perhaps a message we can still move forward today.”
Pentek credited students from Crawford College of Art Design for assistance. He said it had to be installed on site as it was too big to assemble in the studio. The sculpture, he said, “Took a year to make. There was no quick way of doing it… For me it was very important to be hand-tool finished, to give a human element to the work; and respect, to show the dignity and humanity of the combined histories.”
The day of the sculpture dedication was a beautiful, unseasonably warm day. Hundreds of people traveled to the park, some walking from homes nearby, and some traveling from across the country. An outing for the whole family, there were people sitting on the grass under the trees and on benches along the small lake, some spread blankets on the ground, all facing and surrounding the monument. There was one tent under which several sat and the speakers talked from the podium.
In addition to the local Irish population and the official Choctaw delegation, other Choctaws made their way to the ceremony. Douglas Colbert, a Choctaw and a resident of Colorado, was visiting Ireland at the time and joined in the festivities wearing his blue traditional Choctaw shirt.
Jessica Ludlow also was on hand for the event. A Choctaw who lives in Ireland, Ludlow also had ancestors who were on the receiving end of the historic Choctaw gift. “It was a three-hour drive for us, but we were there to meet the Choctaws as they got off the bus,” said Ludlow, who took in the day with her husband and two sons. “I think they were expecting maybe 75 or so people, but at least 300 showed up. It was so exciting.”
Cathy and Joe Izzo are from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. She works for an organization that coordinates sister cities. They arrived in the park as the final feather was installed. They were the first visitors from Oklahoma to see the sculpture. “Throughout the world, everyone will know of the Choctaw generosity and friendship and kindness,” Cathy said.
The Mayor of the County of Cork, Councilor Seamus McGrath said, “We have a shared past as people who have experienced unwelcome intrusion, and a shared sense of injustice. During the great famine up to one million perished during those years; approximately 600,000 immigrated. A truly defining period in their history. One that had a lasting impact. Kindred Spirits is a lasting tribute for the act of humanity and generosity by the Choctaw Nation.”
Chief Batton, at the podium added, “Kindred Spirits is such an appropriate name for this relationship. We endured and overcame, we came across the Trail of Tears where we lost one-fourth of our people. When our ancestors heard of the famine and the hardship of the Irish people, they knew it was time to help… The Choctaw people and the Irish people are still here today. Our two nations stand here together and proudly reflect on the strength and fortitude of our people. We can celebrate overcoming diversity and our history as kindred spirits.”
The program of the dedication of Kindred Spirits Included displays of both Choctaw and Irish cultures. After welcomes from local officials and the visiting dignitaries, an opening prayer was given in Choctaw, followed by a singing of The Lord’s Prayer in Choctaw that was accompanied by Native American sign language. America’s national anthem also was performed in Choctaw. Pipers (musicians on bagpipes) played the Irish national anthem and were joined by a youth chorus. A performance by traditional Irish Bodhran Drums was another highlight. Other traditional music and dance by Irish and Choctaws were conducted, bringing crowd members into the performance and celebration.
Concluding the event, an oak tree was planted, indicating the longevity of the bond between the two cultures.
Before and after the sculpture dedication, the Choctaws exemplified themselves as goodwill ambassadors. On Tuesday, June 20, they visited then-Lord Mayor Brendan Carr in his residence, the Mansion House. A plaque commemorating the donation to the Irish people from the Choctaw people hangs in the Mansion House. Miss Choctaw Nation Karen Crosby, Lillie Roberts, and Brad Joe sang “Hymn 48” near the plaque in honor of the Choctaw and Irish ancestors. Brad Joe also played “Amazing Grace” on a Choctaw river cane flute made by Presley Byington.
The group visited President Michael Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin, Phoenix Park. President Higgins spoke eloquently about Choctaw and Irish history. He recognized the gift from their Choctaw ancestors to his Irish ancestors, who shared similar experiences. He called it a gift of love and compassion, and solidarity. “The gesture your ancestors made, it was an extraordinary one – the compassion for strangers that they had heard of.” He said, what they did was to say, their “nation is alive and capable of reaching out across oceans to help people.”
That afternoon, culture bearers Lillie Roberts and Brad Joe met with Prof. Ruairí Ó hUiginn, Senior Professor, School of Celtic Studies, and a group from Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. They discussed the history and importance of their native languages, the near loss of the languages, as well as challenges and successes in revitalizing the language among the people.
Also, TR Kanuch, Senior Executive Officer for the Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce; and Choctaw Tribal Councilmen Anthony Dillard and Tony Ward met with David Kennedy, International Market Manager for Bord Bia, Irish Food Board; and John MacNamara, Department Manager for Digital Technologies; and Conor Fahy, Regional Director, Central Europe, Russia, and more.
On Wednesday, June 21, Choctaws were welcomed by the U.S Embassy and staff at Pavee Point where they were included in several traditional activities, such as baking bread, crafts, tinsmithing, and singing. Also Chief Batton spoke at the event, and then joined in a “fireside chat.” He was asked several questions and then opened to audience for a Q&A. There were many questions about the Choctaw Nation concerning health, business, and government relations.