Muslim Assistance to Ireland during the Great Hunger.
Possibly the only uplifting aspect of the tragedy of the Great Hunger was the charitable response to the disaster by thousands of private individuals throughout the world who were neither Irish nor Catholic. The geographical scope of this intervention was extensive, with the two first groups to contribute at the end of 1845 being in Calcutta in India and in Boston in the US.
The vast majority of this relief was donated in the wake of the second, more deadly, failure of the potato blight in 1846. This wave of benevolence included a large donation from the Sultan of Turkey, Abdülmecid I. Born in 1823, Abdülmecid had become Sultan in 1839. Regardless of his youth and upbringing, the Sultan showed himself to be a progressive, who desired to forge closer relations with western Europe. His policies included abolishing slave markets, allowing non-Muslim places of worship to be built, establishing modern universities, and – as early as 1858 – decriminalizing homosexuality.
One of the young Sultan’s most impressive acts of generosity occurred in 1847, when he offered to donate £10,000 towards Famine relief in Ireland. If he had been allowed to do so, it would have made him the largest individual benefactor. However, only a few weeks earlier, Queen Victoria had donated £2,000 to Ireland and diplomats in Constantinople persuaded Turkish officials that it would offend British royal protocol if anybody gave a higher amount than the monarch. Consequently, the Sultan’s donation was reduced to £1,000 – still a generous sum, but far less than what had been originally envisaged.
The Sultan’s part in assisting the Famine poor was known at the time within Ireland, with a number of newspapers commenting on it. A (bad) poem was even published to commemorate his intervention:
- God bless the Turk! God bless the Turk!
- God bless the Turk! For this Christian work,
- May his noble shadow never be less!
- May Mahomed guard him,
- And Allah reward him …
- Let Ireland be grateful,
- And pay back the alms
- That His Highness bestowed.
It is hard to calculate the impact of Abdülmecid’s donation, but without the charity of the Sultan and thousands of other men and women who had no direct connection with Ireland, the death toll resulting from the Great Hunger would have been even higher.
For more on private charity see, Christine Kinealy Charity and the Great hunger. The Kindness of Strangers (Bloomsbury, 2013).