‘Singing, Still’ – A Libretto for the 1847 Choctaw Gift to the Irish for Famine Relief

Last year I was approached by Choctaw poet LeAnne Howe and Dr Padraig Kirwan of Goldsmiths, University of London. They explained that they were working on compiling a book of academic essays by Choctaw and Irish writers: Trans-Atlantic Reciprocity: The Choctaw-Irish Gift Exchange 1847-2017.  I have long been intrigued by the complex connection between the Choctaw and Irish peoples.

The more LeAnne and I discussed it, the more a path seemed clear for us to write our own collaboration on this extraordinary moment in our shared history.  Over many months, we wrote poetry that became a collaborative pamphlet in ‘call and response’ mode. It is, in many ways, a conversation across the Atlantic, across cultures, and across time. In other ways, it is a song. As LeAnne says, these are “poems dedicated to our ancestors, the Irish and the Choctaws who lived and died through the hunger years, suffering at the hands of colonialism.” The poems themselves are trilingual, allowing English to form a bridge between our own native languages.

Chocktaw_Memorial

‘Kindred Spirits’ by Alex Pentek, commemorating  the Choctaw gift to the Irish (photographed by Gavin Sheridan)

LeAnne has written beautifully about her relationship to this project, and about our own collaboration, in The Irish Times here. Asked about the process, I commented:

“The process of researching and beginning to write this pamphlet ignited many feelings for me, notably a deep gratitude, but equally, a deep and profound sense of shame. We Irish have such common ground with the Choctaw people, sharing our histories of brutal colonialism, and yet so many people of Irish origin were active in the subjugation of native communities across America – not least Andrew Jackson himself. This pamphlet allowed me a way to articulate both gratitude and shame. For months I immersed myself in the process of responding to this extraordinary act of gratitude. It is such a pleasure, now, to see our collaboration in print, and a worthy gesture, I hope, to our ancestors – both those who hungered and those who nourished.”

LeAnne has a small number of these pamphlets still available through her website, here.

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