A scenic port town on the east coast of Ireland, Drogheda is the last place you would expect to find a vestige of the Ottoman Empire. Yet an understated plaque hanging on the frontage of the town’s bustling Westcourt Hotel tells a very different story.
Unveiled in 1995 by Drogheda Mayor Alderman Godfrey and the then Turkish Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland, Taner Baytok, the plaque, which reads simply “The Great Irish Famine of 1847 -- In remembrance and recognition of the generosity of the People of Turkey towards the People of Ireland,” commemorates a surprising act of generosity on behalf of an Ottoman sultan at a period in time when it is likely that the only turkey on the Irish agenda was that of the edible variety. Or indeed perhaps not even that, considering there was a famine going on at the time.
A devastating wave of hunger, which saw approximately 1 million people starve to death and 1 million more flee in search of a better life elsewhere, the great Irish Famine resulted in the island’s population dropping by what is estimated to be as much as 25 percent between 1845 and 1852.
Yet in 1847, at a time when the Irish found themselves largely forsaken by the rest of the world, not least their rich neighbors across the water, the Ottoman ruler of the time, Sultan Abdülmecid, who caught wind of the disaster from his Irish doctor, decided to send not only monetary aid to the far off island but also three ships carrying provisions and food supplies.
Legend has it that the sultan had pledged the considerable sum of 10,000 pounds to the cause, but the ruling monarch of the time, Queen Victoria, laid down the law, requesting that he send only a 10th of this because she herself had only donated 2,000 pounds. Abdullah Aymaz noted in an article in The Fountain magazine in 2007 that despite the fact that the British administration did not give permission for the three ships to enter the ports of Belfast or Dublin, the vessels managed to secretly discharge their load in the tranquil town of Drogheda, approximately 70 miles north of Dublin.
An act of kindness which remained largely unknown for many years, the episode entered the wider public consciousness when Irish President Mary McAleese sang the praises of Sultan Abdülmecid on a state visit to Turkey in March 2010, relating how, “at the insistence of the people, the star and crescent of Turkey forms part of the town’s coat of arms.”
Indeed, to this day a silver star and crescent maintain their place at the top of the Drogheda coat of arms and the official badge of Drogheda United Football Club is simply a red crescent and a star -- the lasting legacy of a historic act of kindness. A letter signed by the Anglo-Irish gentry of the time, now on display at the European Commission office on Dawson Street in Dublin, expresses gratitude to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire for the donation. Sunday’s Zaman reported in 2010 that the then Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, stated in 2004 that copies of documents confirming the donation had been sent to the National Library of Ireland and the Drogheda Municipality.
Amongst those intrigued by the story of 19th-century international comradeship following McAleese’s comments in 2010 was Turkish filmmaker Ömer Sarıkaya, who this week announced plans to make a movie, titled “Famine,” based on the tale.
“It’s a little-known but inspiring story,” Sarıkaya told Sunday’s Zaman this week. “I would say 99 percent of the people in Ireland and Turkey know nothing about this episode, which is something we hope to change,” he said, adding that since he has expressed his plans to make the movie he has received numerous emails and letters from people in Ireland expressing shame that they did not know of the episode before.
Sarıkaya, who is traveling to Ireland in three weeks time to audition Irish actors for the project, said that 60 percent of the film will be shot in Ireland, while the remainder will be filmed in İstanbul. With filming expected to begin in July, Sarıkaya has his eye on Irish director Neil Jordan to steer the story to the big screen, although this appointment has yet, he says, to be confirmed.
A story of love, jealousy, betrayal, hope and honor, “Famine” will tell the story of an Irish girl, Mary, whose life changes when she meets Fatih, a young Turkish man sent over by the sultan with the aid relief for sufferers of the famine. The two decide to marry and Mary plans to return with Fatih to Turkey. The only problem is that Mary is trapped in an unhappy engagement to James, a fiery Brit who is prepared to do anything to stand in the way of her plans to escape.
“The film will represent the good, the bad and the ugly,” Sarıkaya told Sunday’s Zaman, adding, “The good are the Irish, the bad are the English and the ugly is the famine.”
Yet the Turkish filmmaker is keen to attest that the focus of the film is not on the Irish-English divide but on the unlikely union between Turkey and Ireland, two countries separated by 4,000 miles. “The characters may be fictional but the film is based on the true story of Turkey lending a charitable hand to Ireland during their hour of need,” he said.
Ireland and Turkey are certainly not the most potent of international allies. However, despite the fact that Sultan Abdülmecid’s random act of kindness was little spoken of for many years, it forged a small bond between the two nations which lives on to this day.
In 2007 Turkish journalist Aymaz delivered an account of an interesting memory of Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, a former Turkish ambassador who participated in the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. According to Beyatlı, whilst each of the representatives from the Allied powers voted in unison against Turkey, the delegate from Ireland was an exception, raising his hand in favor of Turkey for each vote. When questioned why he had acted so, the representative said: “When we suffered from famine and disease, your Ottoman ancestors shipped loads of food and monetary donations. We have never forgotten the friendly hand extended to us in our difficult times. Your nation deserves to be supported on every occasion.”
In an age where humanitarian aid has become an ordinary phenomenon, it may be easy to understate the goodwill of such an action. But for those starving citizens who greeted the Ottoman ships in Drogheda in 1847, Sultan Abdülmecid’s gesture would have been seen for what it truly was: an unprecedented and progressive act of humanity.