The great famine and Ottoman assistance to Ireland
May 30, 2015, Saturday/ 17:00:00/ SAİM ORHAN / DUBLIN
Between the years of 1845 and 1851, Ireland experienced a great famine.
Such was the severity of the famine that an estimated 1 million people died of hunger, and another 2 million fled for countries with more food. In the year 1847, the Ottoman state -- led by Sultan Abdülmecid -- reached out to Ireland, giving not only monetary assistance but also food. The Irish were very grateful for this help.
Before the great famine, Ireland's population had been around 8.5 million. But with 1 million dying, and the emigration of another 2 million to other countries, there was a serious decline all at once in the Irish population.
We see some statues in Dublin, near the banks of the city's River Liffey, depicting people devastated by the famine. The faces on the skeletal statues reflect fatigue, extreme hunger and devastation. Modern Dubliners, walking by these statues, remember on a daily basis the difficult times that the famine brought to their country. One of the figures is a dog; after all, the famine affected not only humans, but also animals of all kinds.
The “hunger ship” anchored near the banks of the river is an exact replica of one of the ships employed to carry people away from Ireland during the years of famine, transporting them to other countries. Locals at the time referred to these ships as “floating coffins,” as the eight-week journey to America would often see most of the Irish on board perishing from hunger and disease. Nowadays, tourists can board the replica to look around and try to get a feeling for what travelling on these ships was like.
Looking at a newspaper from 1847
When the Ottoman state provided aid to Ireland during those difficult years, the social response was enormous. We found a copy of a newspaper from 1847 and began flipping through its pages, reading articles about the assistance sent by the Ottoman sultan. In the many years to come, the Irish were never to forget this gesture.
The year the Ottomans sent their assistance to Ireland was the year the famine was at its peak, with tens of thousands dying of hunger. In those times, despite the geographic distance of Ottoman lands from the island of Ireland, it was the Ottomans who provided the most aid to the Irish. Irish aristocracy wrote a letter thanking the Ottoman sultan for his generosity. The letter today can be found in the Topkapı Museum. It reads as follows: “The below signatures of Irish noblemen, sirs, and citizens are to show deep gratitude to his majesty for the generosity shown to the Irish people. We extend our thanks for the generous gift of 1,000 sterling to meet the needs of the Irish people, and to help ease their pain.”
An enduring trace of the gratitude felt by the Irish is that the Drogheda United football club still bears the star and crescent as its logo. We had the chance to meet with the president of Drogheda United, Jim Agnew, a very well-known name in Ireland. In 2007 the team became champions. Their uniforms have the same colors as Trabzonspor: bordeaux and blue. When asked about his team's logo, Agnew responded: "The star and crescent is an important emblem for this region and for the Drogheda team. There are two different views on where this symbol came from; most people think it has to do with the assistance given to this country by the Ottomans during the 1800s, and with the fact that the first ships carrying food assistance from the Ottomans were anchored in Drogheda. There are no other emblems like this throughout Ireland, so in this sense it really is unusual and unparalleled.”
The port where the three Ottoman ships first anchored is called River Boyne. In those years, the British had complete dominion over Irish lands, and they did not allow these ships to dock anywhere other than in Drogheda. On the wall of one local hotel, there is a plaque thanking the Ottomans for their assistance. The plaque was hung in 1995. The local mayor at this time was a man named Frank Godfrey. We learned that he very much loves Turkey and Turks; when we met him, it felt as though we had known him for years.
He recalled: “I remember people talking, when I was little, about the three ships that came and docked in Drogheda, and how they distributed help to everyone. It was a wonderful gesture, and one that was responded to very warmly by everyone. We decided that one of the best ways to express our gratitude to the Ottoman state and the sultan would be to put up this plaque. Of course, things done years ago are not forgotten. We are talking about a time when thousands died, and thousands forced to flee to far away places, like the US and Australia. It was right at this point that the Ottoman sultan offered assistance to the Irish, who were having so much difficulty in their lives, giving them, in the process, the courage to live. So of course, this critical help elicited deep gratitude among the Irish.”
Tuning in to Ted Greene
We also encounter local historian Ted Greene, who has written a book about Drogheda history. He includes the letter written by Irish noblemen to the Ottoman sultan in his book. Greene talks at length about the generosity of the Ottoman sultan at the time, noting that it was a sign of the general openness of the Ottoman state, which had no regard for ethnicity or religion.
Here is some of what Greene told us: “It used to be that drought was a serious problem for Ireland. But when the famine occurred everything changed so much. At the time, the potato was the most essential food source for the Irish. When the drought occurred, the potatoes in the fields rotted. And this was when people fell hungry. Many people actually came to Drogheda, thinking maybe they could find help here. But there was very little the locals here could do, as they themselves had nothing to eat.
“At the time, the sultan's doctor in Turkey was in fact an Irishman. This doctor spoke to the sultan about the problems facing Ireland. Some of the members of this doctor's own family in Ireland had died due to hunger. At the time, around eight-and-a-half-million people lived in Ireland. This was a lot of people for such a small island. In fact, it made the island one of Europe's most densely populated countries at the time. But, of course, when the famine occurred, 1 million people died, and another million or so were forced to emigrate to other countries. The ships carrying people away were called ‘coffins,' since many of the passengers never even survived the journeys away from Ireland, their bodies tossed into the sea when they perished.
“The Ottoman sultan was deeply affected by the stories he heard from his doctor and vowed to do something to help. He decided thus to send 10,000 pounds of assistance to the people of Ireland. This however never happened, because the British Queen Victoria had already sent 2,000 pounds in assistance, and she would not accept anyone else sending more than she had. So the sultan was limited to 1,000 pounds, though he decided to make up the difference by sending actual food assistance, in the form of three ships loaded with food for the Irish. These three ships first arrived at the port in Cork, but were not allowed to anchor. Then they sailed to Belfast, but once again they were forbidden from throwing down their anchors. Finally, they arrived at the port in Drogheda and were greeted with great joy here. These were terrible times.
“And so this assistance, sent by the Turkish sultan, was greeted with the greatest of happiness and gratitude. … When he was not allowed to send the monetary amount he had wished for, his decision to fulfill the rest of his gift with three ships loaded with a variety of grains provided great comfort and assistance to the Irish at the time.”
We also met with the Irish Social Security Minister Joan Burton, who spoke proudly of the assistance from the Ottoman state. “The help from the Ottomans was very meaningful. Because after all, it was very significant that a country so far in the east of Europe would help out a country at the westernmost edge of Europe,” she said. “The sultan was aware of what was happening, and so he decided to do everything he could to help the people of Ireland.”
O’conneil Bridge and Liffey River