Ireland remembers how 19th-century aid from Sultan Abdulmejid changed fate of thousands

– Ireland never forgot how Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid I sent money, shipfuls of food to suffering Irish during Great Famine

By Ahmet Gurhan Kartal

DROGHEDA, Ireland (AA) – Potatoes have a special place in Irish culture, as for centuries the people of the Emerald Isle have depended on this tuber as a diet staple.

A seven-year famine in the 19th century, known as the Great Famine or Potato Famine, killed more than a million people in Ireland, and stories from that time have left deep scars on the national psyche.

The famine in Ireland, which was under British rule at the time, was triggered by the potato blight or late blight, a disease caused by a fungus-like organism causing collapse and decay.

The greatest single disaster Ireland has ever suffered — Gorta Mor in Gaelic — forced more than a million citizens to migrate to the U.S., but those who were too poor to go anywhere were doomed to die from starvation or illnesses that struck the weak and malnourished.

Observing the suffering, English philanthropist James Hack Tuke said that people in the worst-affected areas were "living, or rather starving, upon turnip-tops, sand-eels and seaweed, a diet which no one in England would consider fit for the meanest animal."

The worst year for the famine was 1847, as it saw no improvement in crop yields from the first two years of the plague.

But it was at that time, the plague's worst year — "Black '47" ­– that unexpected aid arrived from afar.

– Help from Ottoman sultan

Thousands of miles away, in the Ottoman capital Istanbul, Sultan Abdulmejid I was made aware of this great human suffering when his dentist, who came from Ireland, told him about the desperate situation.

The sultan quickly offered £10,000 — just over a million pounds at current values ($1.3 million) — to be used to help the starving people of Ireland.

However, Queen Victoria had already aided Ireland with £2,000, and her advisors in London refused to accept any offer exceeding the monarch's aid.

Faced with this dictate, Sultan Abdulmejid unwillingly slashed his original offer of aid, and sent Ireland £1,000 instead.

However, the sultan had a fierce desire to extend more help for this humanitarian cause.

"He was eager to do more, and that's why he ordered three ships to take food, medicine and other urgent necessities to Ireland," said Levent Murat Burhan, Turkey’s ambassador in Dublin, relating what happened next.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Burhan said the historic aid operation was done on the sly, as the British navy would not allow any foreign ships to dock at harbors in either the capital Dublin or Cork.

“So the Ottoman ships had to travel further north and deliver the aid to the harbor of Drogheda,” Burhan said.

The aid was delivered to the wharfs of Drogheda on the coast of the River Boyne, and it is especially in that place that the generosity of the Ottoman Empire is still remembered by the locals, 173 years later.

Visitors to Dublin museums can come across memorials and information about this unforgettable aid from the Ottoman Turks, but a plaque on the wall of a central Drogheda building, unveiled in 1995 by Mayor Alderman Godfrey and then-Turkish Ambassador to Ireland Taner Baytok, reads, "The Great Irish Famine of 1847 – In remembrance and recognition of the generosity of the People of Turkey towards the People of Ireland."

During a 2010 visit to Ankara, Ireland's then-President Mary McAleese expressed the Irish people's gratitude for the aid, saying that the people of Drogheda had "incorporated into their coat of arms your own beautiful emblems, beautiful crescent and star, and they are there to the present day."

One can indeed see the emblematic Turkish crescent and star across the town and most famously in the emblem of the local football team, Drogheda United.

Apart from the plaque of gratitude in the center of the town, the crescent and star are engraved on stones and painted on a wall.

But perhaps the most significant evidence of the aid and the local gratitude for it comes in a letter signed by local dignitaries of Drogheda.

With pride, Ambassador Burhan showed Anadolu Agency a copy of the letter in his official room in Dublin.

The letter reads: "We, as Irish nobles, dignitaries and people, submit our gratitude to the Ottoman Sultan for his generous assistance to us due to famine disaster. It is inevitable that we apply for the other countries’ assistance to get rid of threat and hunger and death.

"The answer given to assistance call generously by the Ottoman Sultan has also been a model for the European countries. Thanks to this accurate behavior, many people have been relaxed and got rid of death. We submit our gratitude on behalf of them and pray for the Ottoman Sultan and his country not to face any disasters as we do."

– 'Good, humane, generous'

An article titled A Benevolent Sultan, written in a religious journal, praised Abdulmejid’s generosity.

"For the first time a Mohammedan [Muslim] sovereign, representing multitudinous Islamic populations, manifests spontaneously a warm sympathy with a Christian nation," it said.

"May such sympathies, in all the genial charities of a common humanity, be cultivated and henceforth ever be maintained between the followers of the crescent and the cross!"

A nationalist Irish journal also celebrated the Sultan's philanthropic approach to the Irish famine, hailing Abdulmejid as a "good, humane, and generous man."

"A believer in Mohammedanism [Islam], he acted in the true spirit of a follower of Christ, and set an example which many professing Christians would do well to imitate."

Irish son James Joyce, the legendary novelist, even referred to Abdulmejid's aid in his masterwork Ulysses.

"Even the Grand Turk sent us his piasters," one of the book's characters says, criticizing the lack of aid from the British during those hard times.

– Good relations

Ambassador Burhan has visited Drogheda a few times, each time getting a warm welcome from local politicians.

Indeed, the respect and love for Turks is still there. He remembered a charity foot race with Frank Geoffrey, then the mayor of Drogheda.

"He went home and brought a Turkish flag to run with it," Burhan said, explaining that he was happy to see the mayor kept a Turkish flag at home.

Burhan also said that the embassy is working on plans for a charity football game between Drogheda United and Trabzonspor, a Turkish Super League team from the Black Sea region.

Sharing the same colors, maroon and blue, the two sides became sister clubs in 2011, the Turkish ambassador explained, an enduring symbol of long-distance compassion between two peoples.