Turkish aid to Irish famine was highest form of compassion

RECENTLY, I got to spend a few days in Turkey’s capital. I can quickly warm to a city like Ankara.

It has none of the show and glamour of a Paris, Rome or Barcelona, and it lacks the shadowy mood of a Prague or Vienna, but it pleased me with its sense of easy calm, and the casual way in which it balances the ancient and the modern, its clean, vibrant centre set against a crumbling periphery still wealthy with remnants of its Hatti, Hittite, Phrygian and even Roman past. Touched by King Midas and conquered by Alexander the Great, this is ground that has known life virtually since life began. The winds of change have shaped the faces of its rock, but the rock itself endures.

As someone deeply fascinated by antiquity, my heart beats loudest when I can stand and listen to ancient places. Yet as rich in story as Ankara might be, it remains, in essence, a stacking of dirt, stone and sky. What truly gives this place life is its people; it is they who make for a history worth recalling.

Ireland and Turkey lie a continent apart, but while we might look and sound different, and while our minds might be shaped by different troubles, we breathe the same air. What I found in the Turkish people I met were the traits that I’d always assumed defined Irishness: the open-hearted embrace for a stranger, an interest in his journey and a desire to understand his background. Most of all, the hospitality of a warm and friendly welcome.

The Great Famine remains Ireland’s deepest psychological scar. At school, bearing its hangover, we weighed issues of responsibility and consequence, the part played by the British, the hulking percentage of our population wasting slowly to an end in fields and ditches, and the almost uncountable number more scattered on the winds and waves. We learned of the horrors and hardships, but left unmentioned were the glints of compassion that occasionally split the darkness. A while back, I came across one such tale, which deserves to be put into the head of every child made to sit and study our history.

Of course, 1847 was the blackest of years. The world listened to the screams but, for diplomatic reasons, had to feign deafness, Ireland then being nestled snugly if unwillingly inside the embrace of the world’s great superpower, ‘the Empire on which the sun never sets’. No country wanted almighty Britain as an enemy.

But one man could not stay silent. Khaleefah Abdul-Majid I, Sultan of an Ottoman Empire centuries past its own prime, was so moved by the Irish plight that he offered £10,000 (the equivalent today of around €1m) to help ease the suffering. Queen Victoria, upon learning of this, requested that he reduce his donation to a more modest £1,000, so as not to embarrass her own relatively meagre offering of £2,000. Reluctantly, the Sultan agreed, but bolstered his contribution by secretly sending five ships loaded with food.

For the Sultan, “compelled by my religion to observe the laws of hospitality”, empathy overrode any risk. The British fleet attempted a blockade but, according to the story, the Turkish ships made it through the line, sailed up the Boyne and docked in Drogheda to unload their cargo of aid.

Today, in that town, the event is hinted at with a plaque, unveiled in 1995. The inscription reads, “In remembrance and recognition of the generosity of the people of Turkey towards the people of Ireland.” Such teasing brevity marks a monumental happening.

Turkey is a country with a rich and murky history of its own. Even today, it has its share of problems, whether political, ethnic, religious or economic. But even if it never had anything else in its past to be proud of, it can and should hold this shining moment dear.

The Sultan’s — and by extension, the Turkish people’s — gesture was no mere act of altruism or charity, but one of simple empathetic humanity. Kindness given without expectation of repayment, an embrace from those who have for those who are forced to go without, is the highest form of compassion.

Based on what I observed among the Turkish people, this sense of solidarity is innate in the national character. And it is this precious quality, so richly evident in the people I met, that made my Ankara experience one of the unexpected pleasures of my life so far.

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