The international story of empathy you’ve probably never heard

Kindred Spirits

There is something hauntingly beautiful about “Kindred Spirits” by Alex Pentek. The sculpture consists of nine 20-foot (6.1 m) stainless steel eagle feathers arranged in the shape of a bowl, with no two feathers being identical. It was built in 2015 in the Irish town of Midleton, Co Cork.

The sculpture is to commemorate the donation by the Choctaw Nation – then of Oklahoma but originally of mainly Mississippi – of $170 to Irish Famine relief in 1847 ($170 was a lot in those days, and a lot for the Choctaw). The Choctaw, themselves the victim of forced emigration from their ancestral lands in the US southeast in the 1830s (during which thousands died), saw in the plight of starving Irish people, something in themselves. As was noted:

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It was also noted:

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1847 is referred to in Ireland as ‘Black 47’, the height of the famine in Ireland and the same year the Choctaw donated. It is difficult to imagine now but just 169 years ago, millions of people were starving, dying or fleeing Ireland as refugees. At the start of the famine, Ireland had a population of about 6.5m people. Just 20 years later it was 3 million. The commonly taught figures in Irish schools is “a million died, a million fled”. And this was Western Europe during the Industrial Revolution, when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom and the broader British empire, during the reign of Queen Victoria.**

Writing about the sculpture, the artist wrote:

It was only 16 years earlier when the Choctaw were forced from their native land by the American government in what is now known as the trail of tears, making this act of kindness even more significant. By creating an empty bowl symbolic of the Great Irish Famine formed from the seemingly fragile and rounded shaped eagle feathers used in Choctaw ceremonial dress, it is my aim to communicate the tenderness and warmth of the Choctaw Nation who provided food to the hungry when they themselves were still recovering from their own tragic recent past. I have also chosen feathers to reflect the local bird life along the nearby water’s edge with a fusion of ideas that aims to visually communicate this act of humanity and mercy, and also the notion that the Choctaw and Irish Nations are forever more kindred spirits.

There is something about standing in the middle of a small town in Cork, and noting the connection to native Americans who we had never met or knew anything about, directly acting to help another nation across an ocean. The Choctaw even made a former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, a chieftain. And members of the Choctaw Nation still come to Ireland to commemorate our famine.

Having recently watched the documentary White Helmets, about brave men who try to save victims of air strikes in Syria – I wonder in 160 years’ time to whom will the Syrian people dedicate monuments to commemorate the people or countries who helped them in their hour of need.

Will it be people or countries as distant and removed as Choctaws were from Cork?

**a small footnote people might also be unaware of. On becoming independent, there stood in Dublin a large statute of Queen Victoria at Leinster House, what was eventually to become the independent Irish parliament. In 1948 it was removed and stored. In 1986 it was donated to Australia and now stands in Sydney.