The secret history of Irish-Turkish relations

By Niall Finn

A little-known tale of generosity has tied Ireland and Turkey together for more than 150 years and has been passed down in Irish folklore until the present day.

A map tracing the route from Turkey to Ireland

In 1845, the Irish nation was dragged into a catastrophe from which it never fully recovered. The potato, on which vast swathes of the country depended as a cheap source of energy, was ravaged by a disease that turned the crop into a black, watery mush.

The so-called ‘potato blight’ had become increasingly common in Europe throughout the 1840s. But it had a devastating impact in Ireland, where an already poor population was dependent on small farms — no more than a couple of fields — with the potato the only crop able to provide enough calories per acre to feed a family.       

As many as 1.5 million people died and at least another million were forced to emigrate; a loss totalling as much as one-third of the population. There are still fewer people in Ireland today than there were before 1845.

Many of those who left headed to the big English cities that were fast becoming the world’s first industrial centres. Here, they set up home among the growing multitudes of those driven from the countryside, forming interdependent communities that would be recognised by any resident of Turkey’s Gecekondus.

At the time, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, and was ruled by Queen Victoria and her government in London. During the five-year famine, the relatively small number of England-based ‘absentee landlords’ who dominated the economy, continued to export meat and grain to markets across the world, while their tenants saw whole communities turned into death pits

The British state, newly converted to the dogma of laissez-faire economics, essentially refused to intervene in a crisis which they had helped to create. Much of the government regarded the suffering as a necessary, if not unfortunate, outcome of capitalist modernization; clearing Ireland of small farmers in favour of larger landholdings that could more efficiently produce beef to feed the growing industrial working class in England.

The only relief that was organised came in the form of private donations, to which Queen Victoria is said to have only contributed £5.

The trauma of the ‘Great Famine’ (or ‘An Gorta Mór’ as it’s called in the Irish language) remains buried deep in the Irish national psyche. And more than 100 years after it had ended, and long after the Republic of Ireland had gained its independence, a statue of Queen Victoria was finally removed from the streets of Dublin; but not before a passerby “stepped forward and waved a £5 note in the face of the bronze monument….  everyone realised the significance of the gesture.”

Such a small act of rebellion is not surprising in a country, where, despite often being excluded from the writing of their history, people have used storytelling to remember the wrongs of the past and ensure that good deeds are never forgotten.

In James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, widely considered to be the greatest Irish novel, one of his Dubliner characters exclaims: “Even the Grand Turk sent us his piastres. But the Sassenach [English] tried to starve the nation at home while the land was full of crops that the British hyenas bought and sold in Rio de Janeiro.”  

Although largely relegated to a footnote of history, there is evidence that, when news of the famine reached the troubled Ottoman Empire, Sultan Abdulmejid I, in stark contrast to Queen Victoria, made a donation of £1000.   

And In Drogheda, one of Ireland’s oldest port cities, there has long persisted a tale that goes further; with Ottoman ships sailing up the river Boyne to deliver food directly to the city’s people.   

Though disputed, the story goes that, on hearing of the plight of Ireland from his Irish doctor, Sultan Abdulmejid I wanted to donate £10,000 (£1 million or ₺4.5million in today’s money) to help feed the country.

However, he was persuaded by his advisors that such a large sum would bring embarrassment to Queen Victoria. Instead, he gave £1000 to the public fund, and quietly dispatched several ships laden with meat and grain to a small, politically insignificant nation at Europe’s Atlantic edge. Supposedly unable to land in Dublin without making themselves known to the British Navy, these ships are said to have headed north to secretly distribute their provisions in Drogheda.  

Despite few written sources, there is a surprising amount of evidence to corroborate much of this story (for more see Mike Dash’s excellent in-depth investigation). But in oral history, narrative tends to be more important than details. And, for the people of at least one small part of Ireland, Turkey is still remembered as coming to their need when they needed it most.

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