On March 15, Folger Shakespeare Library and the Irish Embassy in D.C. presented a poetry reading from Irish poet, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, who writes both in the English and Irish languages. LeAnne Howe, a poet and playwright who is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, joined Ní Ghríofa in conversation later.
After an introduction from Irish ambassador Daniel Mulhall, Ní Ghríofa discussed her current work and her relationship with the Irish language, which has largely fallen out of common use in Ireland.
“Here in Ireland, we have quite a fraught relationship with the Irish language, which many would contribute to postcolonial trauma,” Ní Ghríofa said.
According to data from the Central Statistics Office, in 2016 roughly 40 percent of Irish people said they could speak Irish, but only 4 percent used it daily outside of school.
Ní Ghríofa, however, still uses both Irish and English despite its dwindling usage.
“Every time I’m asked that question, the same image always comes to mind for me, and it's the image of an escalator,” Ní Gríofa said. “In Irish, the phrase that we have for an escalator is ‘staighre beo’ which you would translate in a very literal way as ‘a stairs which is alive.’ I love that phrase so much.”
Ní Ghríofa read several poems and prose from her recent works, including her novel “A Ghost in the Throat,” which won the Irish Book Award in 2020.
Then, Howe joined her in conversation. The two poets have collaborated in the past, both with a strong sense of their community’s histories.
“We are constantly renewing ourselves by remembering that very distant past,” Howe said.
Currently, Howe is working on a book about her grandmother’s life and r struggles on her farm in Oklahoma. Howe’s grandmother also lived through the Spanish influenza.
“I grew up listening and feeling so connected to our relatives through her stories,” Howe said.
The connection between the Irish and Native Americans spans centuries. In the 1840s, Ireland was suffering from the Great Famine, which would see the death of 1 million Irish people and force another million to leave the country. The Choctaw Nation, who had recently been forced off their land by the U.S. government, sent $170 of relief — equivalent to roughly $5,000 today — to the Irish.
This act of kindness fostered a relationship between the two groups that has not been forgotten over 100 years later. The coronavirus pandemic has been especially hard on Indigenous communities, and the Irish decided to repay the generosity they were shown all those years to go. Roughly $3 million have been raised from Ireland, helping to secure food, blankets, clean water and other supplies for the Hopi and Navajo tribes.
In 2015, a sculpture was erected in County Cork Ireland, entitled “Kindred Spirits” honoring the two nations’ long relationship.
Though the Irish language may not be spoken in grocery stores and pubs in much of Ireland, it’s a tradition that is kept alive by those who choose to remember the past.