It was a tale of an extremely familiar heartache that forced one oppressed nation to help another.

Elaine Loughlin

Political Correspondent
In Oklahoma

More than 170 years later, the wounds of the Great Irish Famine and the Trail of Tears undertaken by the Choctaw nation one again united the two peoples.

The poignancy of a downtrodden tribe who had saved the small bit of extra money they had to send it over to a starving nation on the other side of the world was not lost on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar when he visited the Choctaw in Oklahoma yesterday.

Back in the 19th century, when the Irish people were oppressed, abused, neglected and degraded by our colonial master, at our lowest, your spirit of generosity was at its highest.

“You showed compassion to a starving people, who were dying in their hundreds of thousands, or about to embark on our own Trail of Tears across the Atlantic Ocean to seek a new life in Canada or the United States, Mr Varadkar said.

A lone flute player gave a haunting rendition of a Native American tune, which echoed the eeriness of an Irish air as the Taoiseach watched on. The black and red handmade musical instrument was later given to Mr Varadkar.

TaoiseachLeoVaradkarand Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation try a game of Stick Ball the Choctaw tribal council in the Main Hall in Oaklahoma on day two of his week long visit to the United States of America.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation try a game of Stick Ball the Choctaw tribal council in the Main Hall in Oaklahoma on day two of his week long visit to the United States of America.
 

In March 1847, the Choctaw people of Oklahoma collected some $170, the equivalent
of several thousand dollars today, for famine relief in Ireland.

The donation was not only a help to the starving Irish, but an even greater gesture given that the Choctaw had themselves been persecuted in the previous years, in some cases by Irish immigrants who came to America to create better lives.

Choctaw Chief Gary Batton said the bond between both nations is “so strong because we went through our trials and tribulations and we have been able to persevere and stay strong and to stay united and to me that’s what is so very important”.

But the links are greater than just sharing a persecuted past, and both the Choctaw nation and Ireland have seen their economies flourish in recent years.

“Like the Choctaw Nation, the Ireland of the 21st century is an entirely different place. We are a prosperous nation, independent, peaceful, self-confident and forward-looking,” said
Mr Varadkar.

We have built our prosperity on the strength and spirit of our ancestors, whose resilience allowed them to overcome the harshest adversity, and whose passion safeguarded our culture, language and heritage for the generations to come.

While the meeting was marked by it’s poignancy, like all of theses type of public events there was still time for some cringe-worthy interaction.

This came when a pair of stickball sticks were pushed into Mr Varadkar’s hands and he was more forced than coaxed into taking part in a demonstration of the tribe’s unique game.

Like most things, it all seemed very easy when the experts were firing the small ball across the room at each other. Standing in his suit the Taoiseach looked awkward.

Mya Thomas waits to greet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Choctaw tribal council in the Main Hall in Oaklahoma on day two of his week long visit to the United States of America.
Mya Thomas waits to greet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Choctaw tribal council in the Main Hall in Oaklahoma on day two of his week long visit to the United States of America.
 

But there were smiles and cheers all round when he managed to surprise even himself and catch the ball between the two sticks on his third attempt.

Perhaps he might tog out for the Dublin hurlers yet.

It was a hopeful finish to an upbeat US trip so far and the Taoiseach announced that the Irish Government would be setting up a third-level scholarship for Choctaw students.

“We want to continue this relationship that we have had for 170 years there is no way that we are going to let that spirit die at this point in time,” Mr Batton said.

However, as Mr Varadkar touches down in Washington today the fun and games are likely to end and the business of politics begins.

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