I have mentioned the Irish Famine in previous posts. West Cork and the area around Skibbereen in particular was greatly affected by this national disaster. In the period of the failure of the potato crop between 1845 and 1850 it is estimated that one in three people in this area died through starvation or disease. A million people perished in the island as a whole while another million emigrated. By the end of the nineteenth century the population of Ireland had halved, from just over 8 million to just over 4 million, as a traumatised race filled the Coffin Ships to America, Canada and Australia, or took the mail boats to Britain. This time in Irish history has left deep wounds in the Irish soul, and a legacy of distrust of Britain that fuelled much of the subsequent nationalistic fervour.
The Heritage Centre in Skibbereen has an excellent, if harrowing, Famine exhibition. Even more moving, perhaps, is the Abbeystrewry Graveyard, site of mass and unmarked graves of thousands of victims.
In 1997 when events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Famine were being planned new research turned up many previously unknown stories of the time. While most, understandably, turned on the wretchedness of the people and the political and social context, one small tale fired the imagination of the historian who discovered that the Chocktaw Indians of America had made what must have been for them an enormous donation to hunger relief. Having been deprived of their ancestral homeland, and with their population decimated by European diseases, this faraway people collected and sent $710 to the starving Irish. Since this discovery, a special relationship has been nurtured between the Chocktaw and the Irish.
We were lucky, recently, to be present at a session by Tim Tingle, a Chocktaw writer and storyteller, in the Skibbereen library. Relaxed and humourous and with the aid of his drum he told us of his people and their relationship with the land and the animals. Slowly he drew us in to a deeper story from the time of the Chocktaw Trail of Tears: a story universal in its appeal and its humanity. His message: “Look ahead, keep moving forward.”