On this day – 18 March 1847 Choctaw donation to Irish Famine victims



Although there was a respite from potato blight in 1847 the year is still remembered in Irish famine history as ‘Black ‘47’. So few potatoes had been planted that the absence of blight made little difference to a starving, diseased and demoralized people. Thousands more died or hunger and disease or chose the emigrant ship as the only possibility of escape. However, the plight of eight million Irish people was not being ignored, except, arguably, by the Liberal government of Lord John Russell in London. Money poured in from Britain, the continent of Europe, the USA and as far away as Australia.


In March of 1847 an unexpected donation arrived from the USA. While America had been the source of much of the famine relief funds that found their way to Ireland this particular charitable gift was different. It didn’t come from Irish-American migrants on the east coast of the USA. It didn’t even come from smaller pockets of Irish migrants in the MidWest or the West. It came from the state of Oklahoma, not a region generally favoured for settlement by the Irish diaspora.


The donation amounted to $170 and it was collected by members of the Choctaw Native American nation. Some sources give the sum involved as $710, but the amount actually donated is immaterial. Either way it was a huge sum of money for a nation of impoverished Native Americans consigned more than a decade before, to life on the comfortably sounding but demonically devised, reservation. The Choctaw probably empathized with the starving Irish because their own history had much of the tragic about it.


In the war of 1812, fought against the British, the Choctaws had aided the forces led by General Andrew Jackson in the struggle against the former colonial masters. Abject defeat could well have led to the end of the great American Democratic experiment – not that democracy proved to be of much use to the Choctaw. Their reward, in 1831, had been expulsion from their homes in the south-eastern USA during the self-same Andrew Jackson’s presidency, and banishment to the bad lands of Oklahoma. This forced transportation, known as the Trail of Tears had caused the deaths of almost half of the 20,000 or so Choctaw obliged to decamp to the mid-west. Their fate was later shared by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations, all forced into exile, starvation and cultural suppression. The white man wanted their land, and what the white man wanted he got. The punitive Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek signed in 1830, attended to the detail of the wholesale dispossession of the Choctaw. Similar barbed treaties achieved the same result with the other four so called ‘Civilised Tribes’.


1831 was one of the coldest winters on record and the Federal government was not about to waste valuable taxpayers money on providing adequate food, clothing and transportation to mere Indians to protect them from the elements during such an arduous trip westwards into the even colder interior.


So it’s not hard to see why the Choctaw, having heard of the Great Famine, empathised with the Irish people. What must have been more difficult was raising such a significant sum. Only in recent years has their generosity been recognized in Ireland but today, former president Mary Robinson is an honorary chieftain of the Choctaw nation and a plaque commemorating their charity has been erected outside Dublin’s Mansion House. Other monuments around the country recognize their immensely charitable gesture.


The Choctaw, originally from the modern state of Mississippi, more than earned their designation as one of the Five ‘Civilised’ tribes, when they set about collecting a charitable donation worth at least $100,000 in today’s money, to the relief of famine in Ireland, one hundred and sixty-nine years ago, on this day.



On This Day – 31 October 1867 – The Earl of Rosse and the Leviathan telescope


Once upon a time Birr, Co.Offaly didn’t exist. There was a town there all right, but it was called Parsonstown, King’s County.

The ‘Parson’ in question wasn’t a cleric. The name derived from the Parsons family [plural], who were local landowners bearing the hereditary title of Earls of Rosse. The most prominent of that name was the 3rd Earl, William Parsons, born in 1800 during the debate on the Act of Union, a piece of legislation his father vigorously opposed. As the humble Lord Oxmantown William Parsons been educated at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated with a first in mathematics in 1822. He inherited his father’s title in 1841. Prior to that he had been an MP who had voted both for Catholic Emancipation and the Great Reform Bill of 1832.

The facility with sums proved to be useful in his future obsession. Because William Parsons was an astronomer. Not just someone who liked to look at the stars through whatever enhancing lens was available, but a serious scientist who won the Royal Medal in 1851. Previous winners included Humphry Davy, John Hesrchel (three times), Michael Faraday (twice) and our own William Rowan Hamilton. It was a sort of Victorian Nobel Prize.

Once he inherited the title Earl of Rosse and came into possession of Birr Castle he could do pretty much whatever he liked with the ancestral pile. So he proceeded to move in the biggest telescope ever built – the 72” Leviathan, built to his own specifications. It would continue to be the world’s largest telescope, in terms of aperture size, until the early years of the 20th century. Work on this wonder of modern science and technology began in 1842 and it was completed by 1845. It was constructed largely through trial and error as few telescope makers had left behind the secrets of their trade and Lord Rosse started out on his labours a century and a half before Google.

The Leviathan was revealed to the world in a whimsical ceremony. By way of dedication, blessing or opening a Church of Ireland Dean walked through the length of the telescope’s six-foot wide tube wearing a top hat and with an umbrella raised above his head, presumably because he could.

No sooner was the Leviathan complete than it was rendered inactive by the calamity of Great Famine. William Parsons devoted much of his family fortune and most of his time for the next three years to alleviating the effects of famine in what would later become Birr, Co.Offaly.

When Rosse did get the Leviathan up and running again his concentration was on the distant nebulae, whose spiral structure he identified thanks to his powerful telescope. He theorised, based on his observations, that millions of galaxies, like our own, might exist. His conclusions were later borne out when the era of radio-astronomy dawned and his deductions could be verified. Astronomers from all over the world would come to Birr Castle to use Leviathan themselves. Rosse was far from precious when it came sharing his impressive telescope.

His own findings and theories were published in the proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Astronomical Society. Recognition followed swiftly. Rosse became a Knight of the Order of St.Patrick in 1845 and was awarded the French Legion of Honour in 1855.

Rosse’s health began to fail in the 1860s and he took a house near the sea at Monkstown near Dublin to assist in his recuperation. He died there 147 years ago, on this day.