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Potato famine: Ireland remembers how 19th century aid from Ottoman sultan changed fate of thousands

Potatoes have a special place in Irish culture, as for centuries the people of the Emerald Isle have depended on this tuber as a diet staple.

A seven-year famine in the 19th century, known as the Great Famine or Potato Famine, killed more than a million people in Ireland, and stories from that time have left deep scars on the national psyche.

The famine in Ireland, which was under British rule at the time, was triggered by the potato blight or late blight.

The greatest single disaster Ireland has ever suffered – Gorta Mor in Gaelic – forced more than a million citizens to migrate to the U.S., but those who were too poor to go anywhere were doomed to die from starvation or illnesses that struck the weak and malnourished.

Observing the suffering, English philanthropist James Hack Tuke said people in the worst-affected areas were “living, or rather starving, upon turnip-tops, sand-eels and seaweed, a diet which no one in England would consider fit for the meanest animal.”

The worst year for the famine was 1847, as it saw no improvement in crop yields from the first two years of the plague.

But it was at that time, the plague’s worst year – “Black ’47” – that unexpected aid arrived from afar.

Thousands of miles away, in the Ottoman capital Istanbul, Sultan Abdulmejid I was made aware of this great human suffering when his dentist, who came from Ireland, told him about the desperate situation.

The sultan quickly offered 10,000 British pounds – just over a million pounds at current values, or $1.3 million – to be used to help the starving people of Ireland.

However, Queen Victoria had already aided Ireland with 2,000 British pounds, and her advisors in London refused to accept any offer exceeding the monarch’s aid.

Faced with this dictate, Sultan Abdulmejid unwillingly slashed his original offer of aid and sent Ireland 1,000 British pounds instead.

However, the sultan had a fierce desire to extend more help for this humanitarian cause.

“He was eager to do more, and that’s why he ordered three ships to take food, medicine and other urgent necessities to Ireland,” said Levent Murat Burhan, Turkey’s ambassador in Dublin, describing what happened next.

Read the full story in Daily Sabah here

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Lukie Pieterse, Editor and Publisher of Potato News Today

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