‘Paying it forward’: Bonds of giving between Ireland and the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Navajo Nations from the Irish Famine to COVID-19.

By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)

In the mid 1840s and early 1850s, Ireland was ravaged by a Famine which, through a combination of death and emigration, saw the population fall by a third. The horrors of the Famine were reported globally, and the crisis, unfolding in almost real time in the newspapers of readers worldwide prompted an outpouring of global sympathy.[1]

Ireland received approximately two million pounds of overseas donations, which came from businessmen in New York, naval vessels in the Indian Ocean, and prisoners serving time on the remote penal settlement of Norfolk Island in the Pacific Ocean. Some of these donations have lingered longer in Irish popular historical memory than others, and the strength of these memories are such that they continue to shape Ireland’s relationship with overseas communities.

In 1847, $800 was raised amongst the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations for Irish Famine Relief. Anelise Hanson Shrout has discussed the remarkable nature of these donations.[2] To begin with, the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations had no previous tradition of engaging in transnational charity, and no obvious connection with Ireland. Additionally, these donations were made at a time of great hardship, in the wake of both groups being forced off their ancestral lands by the US government. This forced exile became known as the Trail of Tears.

Western observers identified these donations as proof that the Cherokees and Choctaws were absorbing ‘white, Anglo American religious and cultural norms’. However, Shrout argues that these donations should be placed in the tradition of reciprocal gift-giving practices that had long characterised Cherokee and Choctaw charity. She concludes that their donations ‘might be read as a tacit articulation of kinship with distantly suffering strangers who nevertheless shared experiences with Cherokees and Choctaws’.[3]

The memory of this relief has lingered in the Irish historical imagination. Kindred Spirits, a sculpture by Alex Pentek commemorating the donations was unveiled in Midleton in County Cork in 2017. Additionally, in March 2018, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, to thank them for their donation and announce a scholarship for Choctaw students to study in Ireland.

The strong memory of this Indigenous American generosity and kinship has materialised during this current global crisis, in the enthusiastic response of Irish people to a COVID-19 relief fund established by the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, recently surpassing New York state for the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the US. This reflects patterns in the US and elsewhere whereby the disease  disproportionately impacts minority communities.

flag navajo
Flag of the Navajo Nation.

The language used by both the Irish and Navajo to describe this giving resembles that which characterised Cherokee and Choctaw giving during the Famine. In a speech thanking the Irish for their generosity, the Navajo Attorney General, Doreen McPaul described the actions of the Choctaws who sent money to Ireland, despite their own struggles not as a donation, but as ‘paying it forward’ and suggested that what the Irish are doing now is also ‘paying it forward’. Likewise, many Irish people who made donations have described their offerings as repaying a debt.

Sarah Collier, who donated $50 wrote ‘In 1847 the Choctaw people gave so generously to the starving people of Ireland. They had so little themselves but gave so much. We did not forget and send love to you with this small donation’ and Brendan Mulhall also expressed his gratitude with a $20 donation, writing, ‘Thank you for supporting the Irish people during our famine times, I hope Ireland can return your kindness during the COVID-19 pandemic.’

This type of giving establishes a reciprocal bond between giver and receiver, rather than the more hierarchical power dynamic between donor and beneficent, which often defines charitable relationships. McPaul also emphasised the kinship between the Irish and the Najavo, describing their ‘shared history of oppression’ and ‘love of the land’.

Although the Choctaw and Cherokee donations composed only a small fragment of the total amount Ireland received during the Famine, their memory continues to inspire giving and reciprocity between Irish and Indigenous American people


[1] Enda Delaney, ‘Ireland’s Great Famine: A Transnational History’, in Transnational Perspectives in Modern Irish History : Beyond the Island, ed. Niall Whelehan, (London: Routledge, 2014), p.108.

[2] Anelise Hanson Shrout,’ A “Voice of Benevolence from the Western Wilderness”: The Politics of Native Philanthropy in the Trans-Mississippi West.’ Journal of the Early Republic 35, no. 4 (2015), pp.553-578.

[3] Shrout, ‘A Voice of Benevolence’, p.564.


Featured Image: Kindred Spirits, Alex Pentek 2017, Image Attribution: Gavin Sheridan, CC BY-SA 4.0

In Text: Flag of the Navajo Nation, By Himasaram, in the Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1180511


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