“Nothing divides the Choctaw people from the Irish people except for the ocean,” according to the Choctaw Nation’s historical account of their ongoing friendship.
In 1847, still suffering the effects from the Trail of Tears forced migration from Mississippi to Indian Territory, the Choctaw people collected $170 to send to Ireland during the potato famine. The memory of that gift lives on today with a Kindred Spirits sculpture in County Cork, along with scholarships to Choctaw students and, most recently, COVID-19 aid to the Navajo and Hopi nations made by the Irish.
“They were trying to scratch a life out of the Oklahoma Territory,” says Gerry Mulvey, who, with his wife, Allison, created two of the scholarship programs. “They had nothing to give, yet they dug in and gave it.”
Scott Wesley, scholarship director for the Chahta Foundation – which administers the scholarships – is Choctaw but did not grow up with traditional teachings. When he heard the donation story shortly after joining the foundation, it made perfect sense to him.
“The Choctaw people are very giving, very loving,” he says. “It wasn’t that long after the Trail of Tears, and they understood the pain the Irish people were going through.”
How It Started
The Mulveys live in San Antonio and belong to the Harp and Shamrock Society of Texas. They came across the donation story while studying about the potato famine.
“We found out there were a lot of similarities between the two cultures,” says Gerry. “We both had been suppressed in our ability to speak our own native languages. The Choctaw were driven from their land. The Irish were excluded from owning land and driven off their land when they couldn’t pay taxes or rent. Under penal laws they could not practice Catholicism. The Choctaw were not allowed to practice their own religious beliefs until the Choctaw Nation emerged.”
The story prompted the Mulveys to reach out to the foundation.
“Since we are both teachers, the idea of a scholarship was a natural thing to do,” he says.
In 2016, they established the Saint Patrick of Ireland Scholarship, awarded every year to three high school seniors who live on the Choctaw reservation and plan to major in STEM studies. They recently made an additional gift to launch the St. Bridget of Kildare Scholarship, for three undergraduate students already attending a four-year college and studying math, science or engineering.
In 2018, Ireland’s then-prime minister, Leo Varadkar, visited the Choctaw Nation headquarters to initiate the Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship, which pays for two master’s-level Choctaw students to study in Ireland for a year.
“A few years ago, on a visit to Ireland, a representative of the Choctaw Nation called your support for us a sacred memory,” Varadkar said during his time in Durant. “It is that and more. It is a sacred bond, which has joined our peoples together for all time.”
The Mulveys were beaming with pride during Varadkar’s visit to Oklahoma.
“He was incredible,” says Gerry. “He is such a personable individual.”
Allison Mulvey’s Irish ancestors came to the United States in the late 1800s. Gerry’s came more recently, and they both grew up with the culture. Gerry is a meteorologist, and Allison enjoys introducing science to her pre-K students, which influenced their choice of STEM scholarships.
“Our original thought was that the Choctaw are very much tied to the Earth,” he says. “They have almost a visceral understanding and feel for nature.”