Dia Do Bheatha Sultan

The little-known story of Turkish aid to the Irish during the Great Hunger

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

The Irish people are famed for their kindness and generosity, especially when it comes to supporting charities. The online crowdfunding platform GoFundMe recently named Ireland the most generous country in the world, having retained the position for a third year running, with the highest number of donations per capita. In his 2014 TED Talk, ‘Which country does the most good for the world?’ Simon Anholt proclaimed that Ireland was the ‘goodest’ country in the world, according to a survey that measured what each country on earth contributes to the planet and the human race.

Many believe that the generosity of the Irish is partially due to the legacy of the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mór, in the 1840s and 1850s. Ireland has not forgotten the kindness of people throughout the world that provided assistance in their time of need. Donations came from locations as diverse as Australia, China, India, Russia, South America, South Africa, Mexico and Italy, from across religious, ethnic and social divides. Help came from some of the poorest groups in society, including former slaves in the Caribbean. The donation from the Native American Choctaws represented an enormous sacrifice as it had only been sixteen years since they had been forced by the United States government to surrender their ancestral homelands and embark on the Trail of Tears, where thousands died of disease and starvation.

A little-known story is that of the donation of £1,000 made by Abdülmecid, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who learned of the famine from his Irish physician, Dr Justin McCarthy, who was from Drishane in Co. Cork. The Sultan had originally intended to send £10,000, only to be advised by the British Consul in Istanbul that it would be diplomatically embarrassing for him to donate significantly more than the British Queen.

However, the Sultan, who was only twenty-three years old at the time, felt compelled to observe the Islamic laws of hospitality and decided to send five ships laden with grain to Ireland. The British authorities refused to allow his ships to dock in the ports of Belfast or Dublin, so they sailed into Drogheda where the Ottoman sailors secretly unloaded their precious cargo.

Letter of gratitude from ‘the Noblemen, Gentlemen & Inhabitants of Ireland’ 
Sultan Abdulmejid (left) with Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III of France (National Library of France)

Some historians dispute that this event took place as there are no shipping records to confirm it. But Ireland has a great tradition of oral history and in some cases, history that comes from what is considered to be the most trusted written sources can be disputed. However, James Joyce mentions the generosity of the Sultan in Ulysses. He wrote, ‘Even the Grand Turk sent us his piastres. But the Sassenach 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.’

Whatever about the story of the ships, there is no argument that the donation of £1,000 was made and was gratefully received by the people of Ireland. A letter of thanks was sent from Ireland to the Sultan. The original is preserved by the Directorate General for State Archives of Turkey. It reads:

‘We the undersigned Noblemen, Gentlemen & Inhabitants of Ireland beg leave most respectfully to approach Your Majesty in order to testify our deep-felt thanks and gratitude for the munificent act of benevolence and attention lately displayed by Your Majesty towards the suffering and afflicted Inhabitants of Ireland, and to thank Your Majesty on their behalf, for the liberal contribution of One Thousand Pounds lately given by Your Majesty to relieve the wants and mitigate the sufferings of the Irish People.

It has pleased Providence in its wisdom to deprive this Country suddenly of its staple article of food and to visit the poor Inhabitants with privations, such as have seldom fallen to the lot of any civilized nation to endure. In this emergency the People of Ireland had no alternative but to appeal to the kindness and munificence of other Countries less afflicted than themselves, to save them and their families from Famine and Death and Your Majesty has responded nobly to the call, thereby displaying a worthy example to the other great nations of Europe, to assist their fellow creatures in affliction.’

Despite the unprecedented global response to the suffering of the Irish, the private donations came to an end when towards the end of 1847, the British government announced that the Famine was over. In 1848, evictions, emigration and deaths were still rising and proportionately more people died in 1849 than in Black ’47. But without the generous contributions from countries all over the world, many, many more Irish people would have died during that tragic period of our history.   

Eanna O’Casaide and his siblings Sadhbh, Ruairí and Síofra from Kilkenny

An Corrán is an Chrois (The Crescent and the Cross)

The story of Sultan Abdülmecid’s aid to Ireland during the Great Hunger came to my attention when I heard an Irish song, An Corrán is an Chrois (The Crescent and the Cross) that recently won the 2fm / Conradh na Gaeilge Comórtas Amhrán Tí.

The title of the song, written by fourteen-year-old Eanna O’Casaide from Kilkenny, particularly refers to how in gratitude for the Sultan’s generosity, the city of Drogheda incorporated the Turkish star and crescent into its municipal crest. That symbol endures to this day, appearing even on the jerseys of the Drogheda United football club. Eanna had been told the story by a local Turkish barber and took inspiration from this charitable act from a Muslim country to our Christian nation.

An Corrán is an Chrois was performed by Burnchurch, a group of talented young musicians, consisting of Eanna and his siblings Sadhbh, Ruairí and Síofra. The song opens with the words, ‘Dia Do Bheatha Sultan agus guímid gach rath ort.’ (God be with you Sultan and every blessing be with you.)

The song has gathered a massive following from the Turkish community in Ireland and abroad, including being featured on the website of the Turkish Embassy. The Embassy’s First Secretary also visited the young musicians to personally thank them for keeping the Sultan’s memory alive.

  • ‘Dia Do Bheatha Sultan’ is published in Anthology Volume 15. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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