Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has thanked a Native American tribe for the way their ancestors showed compassion to Irish people who were dying in their hundreds of thousands during Ireland’s Great Famine.
Mr Varadkar said that when Irish people were “oppressed, abused, neglected and degraded by our colonial master”, fundraising efforts by the Choctaw Nation highlighted the spirit of its people.
The Irish PM made the comments on the second day of his St Patrick’s Day trip to the US during a ceremony to commemorate the generosity of the Choctaw tribe.
Mr Varadkar said it was an honour to be at the Choctaw Nation on his first St Patrick’s Day trip to the US as Taoiseach.
“For me, the story of our two peoples symbolises the spirit of St Patrick better than anything else,” he said.
He added: “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 the impact of the donation was about more than the lives that were saved.
In 1847, the Choctaw tribe raised 170 dollars, the equivalent of several thousand dollars in today’s money, for famine relief in Ireland.
The donation was made 16 years after the Trail of Tears, when tribes were relocated from their tribal lands and at a time when the Choctaw people were themselves living in relative poverty.
Last year Choctaw chief Gary Batton marked the ongoing ties between the two communities with a visit to Midleton in Co Cork, to unveil a statue entitled Kindred Spirits that commemorates the donation.
The ceremony in Durant, Oklahoma on Monday included traditional songs by both Choctaw and Irish people and native dancing.
The Taoiseach also tried his hand at stickball, a native sport.
He held bilateral meetings with Mr Batton and Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin during the visit.
Mr Varadkar also announced that a new scholarship programme was to be set up between the Irish Government and the Choctaw Nation.
The first scholarship will begin in autumn next year. It will mean third-level Choctaw students will be able to study at Irish universities.
“This is an opportunity for us to learn from you and from your culture, and you from ours, in a sharing of knowledge that will enrich both our peoples,” Mr Varadkar said.
He said that it would add a new dimension to the relationship between the two communities.
The Taoiseach’s visit was the first by a head of state or head of government since former Irish president Mary Robinson visited in 1995.
The Government’s week-long visit to the US to mark the St Patrick’s Day festivities began on Sunday with engagements in Austin, Texas.
Mr Varadkar will travel to Washington DC on Tuesday, where the focus will be a bilateral meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House on Thursday.
While in Washington, Mr Varadkar will deliver a foreign policy address to the Brookings Institution on Tuesday and later that day will be a keynote speaker alongside senator George Mitchell at a congressional event to mark 20 years since the signing of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement.
He will also attend the annual Speaker’s lunch on Capitol Hill and have a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence.
Mr Varadkar will end his trip in New York where his engagements will include the St Patrick’s Day parade along Fifth Avenue on Saturday.