By Martin Gleeson
Abdulmejid succeeded his father as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in July 1839. He received a European education and spoke fluent French. Many reforms were introduced by him during his 22-year reign. He was the first sultan to listen directly to the Turkish people’s complaints. He travelled extensively through the empire to ensure that his reforms were being applied. He had village children vaccinated against infectious diseases. Another of his reforms was the abolition of slavery.
When news of the devastation caused by the Great Famine in Ireland reached Sultan Abdulmejid, he declared his intention to send “£10,000 to aid the starving Irish people.” Queen Victoria had donated £2,000. British Ambassador Lord Cowley told Abdulmejid that it would be embarrassing if his donation exceeded the Queens’s, so he reduced his donation to £1,000.
But Abdulmejid did more than that. He sent three sailing ships from the ports of Thessalonica and Stettin laden with food, medicine, and seeds to Ireland. The Turkish ships were not allowed to dock in Dublin. Instead, they secretly landed in Drogheda and distributed their much-needed cargo there. Also, there was a general collection among the citizens of Constantinople for Irish famine relief which raised £450.
The Sultan’s generosity was noted by the Irish dignitaries, and this is the letter that they sent to the Sultan in his Topkapi palace:
“As the Irish nobles and people, we, the undersigned, present our dearest gratitude to the generous philanthropy and interest shown to the suffering and grieving people of Ireland by his Majesty Sultan Abdulmejid, and we would like to thank him for the generous donation of 1,000 pounds sent to meet the needs of the people of Ireland and relieve their suffering.”
The help given by a Muslim country to a Christian country 4,000 miles away in its hour of need has not been forgotten. A plaque in Drogheda unveiled in 1995 by Mayor Alderman Godfrey and the Turkish Ambassador to Ireland Taner Bayok reads:
“The Great Irish Famine of 1847. In Remembrance and recognition of the generosity of the People of Turkey towards the People of Ireland.”
It can be seen on the front of the Westcourt Hotel in West Street.
But Sultan Abdulmejid made little of his generosity to the Irish people. He said:
“In contributing to their relief, I only listened to my own heart.”