Between 1847 and 1850 a hundred ships set sail from Galway Bay. Their ‘cargo’ included some of the most impoverished humans on the planet at that time and many of those who dreamed of starting new lives in Boston or Brooklyn never survived to see the other side.
The story of our ‘Coffin Ships’ is one of the most troubling in Ireland’s painful history. Impoverished people, fleeing starvation and persecution by the British Empire, counted themselves lucky if they had the fare for the long voyage across the Atlantic.
No doubt, many of them cried tears of despair upon leaving family members behind. In those days a ticket to America was only one-way and many lived for 50 or 60 years without ever getting a chance to return to their homeland.
For those people the prospect of a decent, peaceful life seemed impossible in their homeland. The crops had failed, their British masters showed no mercy or compassion, and they dreamed of just having enough to survive on when they got to the ‘New World.’
Behind them, thousands were starving, including a six year old girl called Celia Griffin, whose distressed family walked into Galway from the countryside in search of “relief” in 1847. The nuns tried to help her, to provide her with food, but Celia died on a roadside.
She was too far gone.
Many of those who embarked from Galway Bay would have passed by little children like Celia, starving on the roadsides, on their way to America. The suffering they left behind gave them a steely determination to succeed in the New World.
The Ireland they left was a place where the natives faced religious and economic persecution. In the previous century, Catholics had been denied the right to vote and the Irish language could only be taught in “illegal” hedge schools.
The Irish language still thrived in the West, however, and many of them did not have a word of English when they set sail for the Americas.
The terrible poverty of the 19th century and our centuries-long struggle for independence have meant that Irish people are universally popular across the globe, especially among the downtrodden who take inspiration from our long struggle.
Hard to believe now that the Choctaw people of North America, despite facing the oppression of colonizers themselves, were so taken by the plight of the Irish people that they raised $170 to send to Ireland to ease their suffering in the year little Celia died, 1847.
That would be a pretty substantial amount of money these days and their generous gesture has been commemorated forever with a sculpture which was erected in the town of Midleton, Co Cork, two years ago.
Only 16 years after the Choctaws were forced off their land by US President Andrew Jackson – leading to a 500-mile trek to Oklahoma, known as the ‘Trail of Tears’ – this was an extraordinary act of generosity by Native Americans who had so little themselves.
In Ireland, we always tend to pride ourselves on rooting for the underdogs, and we have been seen as a beacon of hope for people living under occupation for almost a century.
In his acclaimed 1997 Pulitzer-prize winning memoir, "Angela’s Ashes," Frank McCourt wrote of how the impoverished children in his native Limerick would always cheer for the ‘Red Indians’ as they were being slaughtered by the ‘Cowboys’ in Hollywood Westerns in the 1940s.
In the cinemas, the Irish children would hoot and holler for the Native Americans on the big screen, perhaps with some subconscious awareness of how those people had helped their own during Ireland’s darkest days.
I thought about the Choctaw Nation and "Angela’s Ashes" last week when I wrote a piece for IrishCentral about Ireland’s notorious Direct Provision system.
Direct Provision is the system the Irish Government uses to process the cases of asylum-seekers, who often spend up to seven or eight years living in former hotels or hostels as they wait for their cases to be processed.
These people live on €19.10 ($21.50) per week and their voices are rarely, if ever, heard on the Irish media. They are afraid of repercussions for speaking out, either from the Irish authorities or from criminals or political forces in their own countries.
It took me six weeks to set up the interviews with two of the asylum-seekers. They were extremely fearful of speaking out and didn’t want their real names to be used.
We couldn’t meet in the center where they share their lives with so many others from a wide variety of countries, so I suggested the back of a pub which I knew would be quiet on a weekday afternoon.
The women themselves did not know the pub, even though it was only a few hundred meters from their center.
One of them didn’t turn up. And I was really annoyed. I sat in the pub waiting for almost an hour, thinking this had possibly never happened to me in 25 years of journalism.
I texted her a few times, but to no avail. I felt she had let me down.
Later that night, I received an apologetic text from her daughter. She had been taken to a day’s training program by the Irish authorities at short notice and didn’t have any credit to send me a text message to cancel the interview.
So she agreed to turn up the next day and was actually 30 minutes early for our interview.
I had no idea what story she had before our interview began, as I had never met her before.
I didn’t know that she had been praying in a Church in northern Nigeria when Islamic terrorists from Boko Haram broke in and shot most of the people dead.
I didn’t know she had been taken prisoner and managed to escape after making up a story about needing to go to the toilet out in the bush.
I didn’t know that the woman who brought her and her daughter to Ireland has been trying to take €50,000 from her, money she clearly doesn’t have.
I don’t know if her life would be any better if she had tried to stay in Nigeria and maybe move to another location, away from Boko Haram, with her three sons.
Instead of living in a tiny, grotty former hotel room with her daughter for months or even years, with no right to work, for months or even years on end.
But I do know I saw genuine fear and despair and even terror in her eyes.
I do know that it was painful and uncomfortable for her to talk about her life, as she’s now so used to putting on a brave face for her daughter.
I was taken aback by how upset and how lacking in hope she was at the end of our conversation.
And then I read some comments on social media sites. About how she should go straight back to Africa, or how I must have been a fool to believe a woman I met in an Irish pub (an interview in a venue I chose, which took weeks to set up, by the way).
And I wondered what had happened to the famous compassion of the Irish, supposedly the poster boys and girls for underdogs all across the globe.
Judging by 90% of the comments on social media sites, the Irish in America have lost all of the compassion which saw the Choctaw send money they didn’t have all across the world to people in distress in a far-off, strange land.
In a way, it helped me to understand why the 50,000 ‘illegal’ Irish in the United States are now getting so little support from established, older Irish-American communities in Trump’s America.
The Chinese have a saying that an ambitious horse never returns to its old stable.
Perhaps the Irish, on both sides of the Atlantic, have forgotten where they came from when it comes to dealing with people fleeing war, persecution, and famine.----