Tag Archives: Great Famine

Kindred Spirits: The Choctaw Nation and the Starving Irish 

Those of us who live around Midleton, a small  town in the east of County Cork, Ireland, are very proud of an impressive art installation that marks a very poignant moment in Irish history.

This sculpture honours an extraordinary gift from the Choctaw Native Americans to the starving Irish during the Great Famine that raged through Ireland in the 19th Century. It was created by Alex Pentek at the Sculpture Factory in Cork, Ireland and installed in Bailick Park, Midleton in 2015.

Native Americans of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek and Cherokee tribes lived in traditional tribal lands in parts of Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee.  However, this valuable land was coveted by white settlers who wished to grow cotton.  Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act that authorized forcible eviction from their native land.  In the winter of 1831 under threat of invasion by the U.S.Army, 17,000 Choctaw were first to be expelled from their homelands. They began migrating on foot to Indian Territory, now a part of Oklahoma, along what became known as the ‘trail of tears’.  With no help from the government and often without food and supplies and in dreadful weather conditions, many thousands died along the way.  It is estimated that nearly one third of the Choctaw Nation perished due to starvation, exposure and disease on the 500 mile walk, the ‘trail of tears’.

Several years later the Choctaw Nation, on hearing of the famine that had struck Ireland in 1845, made a donation of  $170 to the Famine Relief Fund of Ireland. Whilst many donations were made for famine relief at that time, what makes the Choctaw donation stand out is that they were living in great hardship and poverty at that time.

It is in recognition of that fantastic gesture that this sculpture, appropriately named ‘Kindred Spirits’ was created.

The sculpture consists of nine 20-foot (6.1 m) stainless steel eagle feathers arranged in a circle, to represent an empty bowl.

No two feathers are the same. 

Although there is no direct connection between Midleton and the Choctaw donation of 1847, we are delighted to have such a wonderful piece of public art in our area. It can be seen from the Cork to Waterford N25  road, when travelling in the direction of  Waterford. It has become something of a tourist attraction and has regular visitors – individuals, small groups  and entire school classes.

Probably one of Ireland’s most impressive public sculptures, it is a fitting tribute to the generosity of the Choctaw Nation who saw themselves as our kindred spirits in our time of need.   I love it and hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I do!

References

http://www.choctawnation.com/

Wikipedia

http://www.History.com

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The Irish Workhouse Centre

 

The Women’s building at The Irish Workhouse Centre, Portumna

Yesterday I attended a conference at the Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna,Co Galway. This was my first visit to this complex of buildings, which date from 1850.  Workhouses were introduced in 19th Century Ireland to provide food and shelter for the destitute. The very name ‘Workhouse’ has terrible connotations to this day because of the awful conditions in which the inmates lived.

Families were split up on arrival with separate wings for men, women, boys aged between 2 and 15 and girls aged between 2 and 15 .  Children under the age of 2 could stay with their mother. Parents were permitted ‘ to have an interview with their child at some time in each day’, other than that, there was total segregation. How cruel for little children who would not understand what was going on.

The rear the building that housed the boys. With piles of rocks in what was the yard .

At the height of the Great Famine that raged from 1845 to 1851 or 1852, the poor were clamoring for admittance. Buildings built to accommodate 600 people could have been packed to overflowing with 1,600 people. The daily food allowance was minimal and of poor nutritional value, and many inmates of these establishments died of disease such as dysentery, cholera and typhus.

Inmates had to work in exchange for food and shelter. Women took care of laundry, scrubbed floors, did the cooking and did sewing and mending while men did often meaningless heavy work such as breaking stones.  The laundry area has some very fine industrial archaeology.

By the end of the Great Famine Ireland had 163 Workhouses. Many of these eventually became local hospitals and still stand today as care centres for the elderly. Many have been demolished and have disappeared without trace.

This wonderful project in Portumna which houses the Irish Workhouse Centre is a credit to those who had the foresight to save these buildings from total dereliction. Steady  progress is being made with restoration and conservation work. The centre is in use  for educational purposes and  there are plans for a Workhouse Museum.  The guided tours of the buildings are a revelation, and are conducted with knowledgeable enthusiasm.

Only a handful of Workhouses remain in their original format. This unique complex of buildings in Portumna  stands testament to the history of the ordinary people of Ireland, the non landed gentry from whom most of us descend. Ordinary people who endured extraordinary hardship –  many of them died, many emigrated, many survived too.  This is a tangible monument to them all and deserves our support.

For more information see http://www.irishworkhousecentre.ie

 

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The Famine Diaspora. What became of them? Many who went to the United States of America fought on both sides of the American Civil War. Many suffered terrible wounds. Many died. In the USA Civil War veterans are remembered with pride and all things Civil War have enormous tourist potential. Isn’t it time that we Irish acknowledge the contribution our starving ancestors made to the formation of America? Isn’t it time that we Irish acknowledge the tourism potential in having memorials to this part of our very proud history? For an academic ‘take’ on it, read Damian’s recent blog post above.

Irish in the American Civil War

The Great Famine is an event seared into Irish national memory. Although the victims of the Great Hunger are rightfully remembered and commemorated, as is the physical fact that vast numbers of people were forced to leave, Ireland today largely leaves the memory of these emigrants at the dock, as they boarded ships to a new life far from home. Preserving the memory and experiences of emigrants once they arrived in their new countries has for the most part been left to their own descendants, despite the broader pride that Ireland takes in her global diaspora.

Perhaps the most stark example of this is the way Ireland views the American Civil War. At the commencement of that conflict 1.6 million Irish-born people lived in the United States, the vast majority having arrived as a direct consequence of the Famine. In New York City, which in 1860 had a population of 793,186, a…

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A history of Ireland in 100 objects – An Empty Cooking Pot from about 1845

This Irish Times article from Fintan O’Toole’s  excellent ‘A History of Ireland in 100 Objects ‘ series, links back very nicely to my recent post on Knockfierna, County Limerick and the remnants of the Famine Village there. Click to read about the importance of this pot in Irish households. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2012/0901/1224323426718.html

A history of Ireland in 100 objects.

The Irish Times

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Filed under Irish Diaspora, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Social History Ireland

Remembering the Great Famine – a dying nation’s groan

Sunday August 26th was the last day of Heritage Week in Ireland and on this day I chose to visit a Famine Settlement high above the  Limerick landscape on Knockfierna, County Limerick.

This hill was once home to hundreds of people.

Knockfierna, the highest point in County Limerick at approximately 950 feet, was common land so anyone could live there. It was  to this place  that many of the dispossessed went to live during the Famine years . Some had been evicted because they could not pay their rent; most  had no place else to go because there was no work.

A Famine Dwelling

Foundations  of scores of primitive  shacks have remained in place on Knockfierna since it was deserted in 1847.  Spread over some 200 acres, there  are remnants of many houses – tiny, at about 8 feet by 8 feet, – with nothing more than walls and clay floors with sod roofs . It is estimated that about 130 families lived here at one time. These houses are now being preserved in memory of those who died in that terrible time.

Another Famine Dwelling

I found it quite difficult to think about many human beings, old people, younger people, children,  huddled , sick and starving to death within these walls.

Outside the remains of their huts, although it is now rather overgrown with scrub,  it is still possible to see their horticultural efforts –  raised beds  where they tried in vain to grow a potato crop to feed their families ; a crop that rotted in the ground for several years as it succumbed to a blight. As potatoes were the mainstay of their diet, there was no alternative , and so they had nothing to eat.

From the desolate hillside they looked down on the village of Ballingarry

The great green lush pastures of the Golden Vale are below where these wretched people ‘lived’. It was to Ballingarry graveyard that their coffinless bodies were transported. From this hill their emaciated bodies were taken to Ballingarry to be deposited into anonymous  pits .

The Famine Memorial on Knockfierna with lush green fields below

The poem on the memorial is by Michael Hogan from Limerick. Although not a great work of literature, it encapsulates the time:

‘The Living Skeleton, A Vision of the Famine Year, 1847’:
‘Twas in ruthless Fortyseven,-
When the plague-fraught air was riven
With the sound which harrowed heaven,
Of a famished people’s cry –
When the famine fiend was formed,
All with tenfold horrors armed,
And our godless rulers, charmed,
Saw their Irish victims die;
While Europe, all alarmed, heard
the wail that tore the sky
A dying Nation’s death-groan, ringing
up to God on high.

Detail Famine Memorial on left

The right side of the memorial  is rather difficult to read and I will post a transcription here when I can find one!

Right side of memorial

It is interesting to note the very lush green fields that can be seen over the top of this image –  the great so called Golden Vale below is one of the lushest agricultural areas in Ireland , yet these unfortunate people starved to death in sight of it .

Famine Memorial overlooking a green and pleasant land

Over a million people  died as  a result of the Great Famine between 1845 and 1849. It is not known how many people who lived on  Knockfierna died.

This hill however preserves their hovels and the relics of their garden plots. On this hill they starved, on this hill they sickened and on this hill they died.  Men, women, children. They are buried in anonymous pits in the lush fields of Ballingarry.

Today I remember them.

Ar dheis De go raibh siad uilig

References

Credit to Knockfierna Heritage & Folklore Group for recognizing the importance of this heritage site and to Pat O’Donovan whose passion for this project has become legendary.

 

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Family History, Genealogy, Irish Heritage, Irish History