The British were equal opportunity offenders when it came to colonizing other cultures
From Ireland to the Americas, India and Australia and more, the British waged destruction on the world’s Indigenous Peoples for centuries.
Acts of genocide upon Natives are well known to Native peoples in the Americas, but according to Katie Kane, the Irish were the first to suffer the mistreatment, genocide, starvation and other abuse during colonization. According to Kane, professor of the Colonial Studies Program at the University of Montana, the Brits even tried to put the Irish on reservations. Kane said the Irish, Africans and Natives in the Americas lived tribal, indigenous lifestyles that offended the British.
From 1845 through 1850 the Great Famine of Ireland, caused by failed potato crops, resulted in at least 1 million indigenous Irish dead and another 2 million who fled Ireland for America—a full 25 percent of the Irish population. Some of those who left on “Coffin Ships,” so called because they were packed with starving, ill, and impoverished people who arrived in the United States, some without even clothes, came to Montana, following work in the copper mines. With comparable cultures and similar experiences of colonization, the Natives and Irish intermarried, often with the French, and came to be known as the Métis. Many live today on the Rocky Boy Reservation, Kane said, adding that the Métis now produce a “gorgeous” music that blends Irish fiddling and drums, and dance steps that reflect Native culture and Irish jigs.
Famine Monument by Rowan Gillespie in Dublin, Ireland.
Loretta Lynde, an Irish descendent whose family has lived on the Crow Reservation in Montana since the mid-1800s, said there were only a few other whites living there when her great-grandparents arrived, and when Lynde attended the tribal school on the Crow Reservation the Native population was still 6 to 1.
Lynde said her family always maintained their Irish identity and she travels to Ireland frequently, though she was always immersed in the Crow culture. She calls the similarities between the two cultures, “stunning.”
Over the years, Lynde compiled a list of similarities. Here it is, with information from other sources as well.
Both the Irish and Natives were first invaded by people whose religion was Catholicism.
Both Natives and the Irish were occupied by the British—both were sent to boarding schools and forced to abandon their traditional language and culture. Both suffered genocide, starvation and diseases at the hands of the British. In her paper “Nits Make Lice,” Kane compared the Sand Creek Massacre with the massacre at Drogheda. In both, British military figureheads told soldiers before going into battle, “Kill them all because nits make lice.”
In The Rebellion of 1641, R. Barry O’Brien writes, “The warfare which ensued… resembled that waged by the early settlers in America with the native tribes. No mercy whatever was shown to the natives, no act of treachery was considered dishonourable, no personal tortures and indignities were spared to the captives. The slaughter of Irishmen was looked upon as literally the slaughter of wild beasts. Not only the men, but even the women and children who fell into the hands of the English were deliberately and systematically butchered. Year after year, over a great part of all Ireland, all means of human subsistence was destroyed, no quarter was given to prisoners who surrendered, and the whole population was skillfully and steadily starved to death.”
An illustration of an Irish family saying goodbye to immigrants during the Irish famine.
Both maintained their spiritual practices underground and both are seeing a resurgence of their practices and ways. Lynde said, “Even today as the old ways appeared to have been tamped down by Christianity, they are reemerging. You are seeing a lot more pow wows here, and for the Irish, they are going back to their old ways and even talking about the druids.”
Neither Natives or the Irish had an original history of a written culture, and both passed their earth and nature based customs and culture through oral traditions.
Both the Irish and Natives are matriarchal and recognize the important balance of men and women. Both have had powerful female figures in their history and origin stories.
Both were stereotyped and belittled, and were believed by the British to be less than human. Kane said that even though they were white, “The Irish were assumed to be lower on the tree of racial hierarchy in the 19th century. They were considered to be racially other.”
Being on Time
Irish time is the same as Indian time, which pretty much means, not on time.
Both lived a tribal and seasonally nomadic lifestyle, and the Irish clans were like the Native tribal bands. There are still areas in Ireland where families have lived for centuries, and maintain their clan names. “Prior to the 1600s, when all the land was transferred to the British, the Irish were nomadic, which was very threatening to the British who were used to people being fixed in one place,” Kane said, noting that the indigenous Irish did not build cities; they were all built by the Vikings and the British. “The whole of Irish history is filled with laws against the language in the 16th century, Irish women’s cloaks, and Irish style of dress,” Kane said. “If you look at the records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they say again and again, ‘these Native people are like the wild Irish, they wear the same clothes and have the same houses,’ even though they didn’t. The British were colonizing both places and were trying to understand both peoples through each other.”
Photo: Oireachtas Gaeilge Cheanada Facebook page
People display the flags of Ireland and Canada while posing with the sign for the Gaeltacht Cheanada, in Ontario, Canada
Close to Nature
Both lived according to the seasons, and celebrated solstices. There was always a person who knew plant medicine, and both cultures had spirit beings, and knew about “little people.” There was a strong connection, kinship, to the land, and communication between animals and people were accepted. “The Celtic cross comes from the sun religion,” Lynde said. “When the monks came, the Irish said, ‘We will stop worshipping the seasons and the sun and we will put up your cross, but our cross is going to have this interesting aspect to them.’ That circle around the cross is the sun, so it was really a merger.”
Trail of Sorrow
Each walked a trail of sorrow that resulted in the death of their people. An Irish Central story says that in 1847, 16 years after the Trail of Tears and in the midst of the famine, the Irish of Louisbourough, County Mayo, were told to report to the Poor Relief in hopes of receiving food. The officers were gone before the Irish arrived, so they walked 15 miles to the home of British who had seized their lands, in hopes of finding the officials there. When the Irish arrived, they were turned away at the door, and told those in the house could not be disturbed during their lunch. Once turned away, many were found dead along the road, some with grass in their mouths, trying to sate their hunger in any way they could.
When the Choctaw (and according to research by Kane, the Cherokee) heard of this, they raised $170, the equivalent today of $5,000, for food for the Irish. The kindness has not been ignored by the Irish, who are now creating a sculpture in honor of the Choctaw.
Choctaw officials came to Ireland in 1990 to remarch the long walk with the Irish. In 1992, 22 Irish officials joined the Choctaw for a remarch of the Trail of Tears. While in Oklahoma, they visited the graves of those who had originally sent funds, writes Kane in her yet unpublished research.
Here’s a video from a remarch: