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Irish family in the west of Ireland, circa 1860's.

An Ghorta Mor - The Great Hunger

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Irish family in the west of Ireland, circa 1860's.

Another head of state to send money to Ireland was the Sultan of Turkey. He had an Irish doctor but he was also trying to create an alliance with British government. He initially offered £10,000 but the British Consul in Istanbul told him that it would offend royal protocol to send more money than the British Queen. As a result of this diplomatic intervention, Abdulmecid reduced his donation to £1,000. Nonetheless, his generous contribution was gratefully received by people in Ireland, with a formal letter of thanks being sent by “noblemen, gentlemen, and inhabitants of Ireland.” According to local legend, Abdulmecid tried to compensate for his reduced monetary donation by sending two ships to Ireland, laden with food. Allegedly, but there is no documentary proof of this, the British government refused to allow the ships to dock in either Cork or Dublin so, surreptitiously, they docked in Drogheda. This story is accepted in Drogheda today. On May 2, 2007, the Turkish ambassador to Ireland was invited by the city’s mayor, Frank Goofrey, to a ceremony to place a memorial plaque on the walls of the West Court Hotel, which, according to legend, used to be the old Government Building where the Turkish sailors and captains had stayed. During the unveiling, the Mayor drew attention to the city's logo, which consists of a crescent and star just like the Ottoman crescent and star. He added that the plaque would serve as the symbol of friendship between Ireland and Turkey. So an act of kindness that took place over 160 years ago continues to have repercussions today.

Support for the Irish poor also came from the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, Pope Pius IX. The involvement of a Pope in the secular affairs of another country was unusual. Nonetheless, at the beginning of 1847 Pope Pius donated 1,000 Roman crowns from his own pocket to Famine relief. In March 1847, he took the unprecedented step of issuing a papal encyclical to the international Catholic community, appealing for support for the victims of the Famine, both through prayer and financial contributions. As a result, large sums of money were raised by Catholic congregations throughout the world. Most of this aid was put in the hands of Archbishop Murray in Dublin.

Other high profile donors to Famine relief in 1847 included the Tsar of Russia (Alexander II) and the President of the United States, James Polk. The latter, who donated $50, was criticized for the smallness of his donation. Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewing magnate, also made a number of modest contributions.

 

Help from America

Inevitably, a large portion of relief came from the United States, not only from the Irish Catholic community, but from a wide variety of groups, including Jews, Baptists, Methodists and Shakers. At the beginning of 1847, the American Vice President, George Dallas, convened a mass meeting in Washington to raise money for Ireland. He urged that every American state should follow suit. The Washington meeting was attended by many senators, notably the young Abraham Lincoln.

During the meeting, letters were read from Ireland, including one from the women of Dunmanway in County Cork. It was addressed to the Ladies of America. It said: “Oh that our American sisters could see the laborers on our roads, able-bodied men, scarcely clad, famishing with hunger, with despair in their once cheerful faces, staggering at their work . . . Oh that they could see the dead father, mother or child, lying coffinless, and hear the screams of the survivors around them, caused not by sorrow, but by the agony of hunger.” 

Remarkably, even though America was at war with Mexico, Congress gave permission for two navy vessels to be used to take supplies on behalf of the Boston Relief Committee to Ireland and Scotland, where the potato crop had also failed. The resolution authorizing the use of the ships by private individuals, even to this day, “remains unique in the history of Congress.”

On 17 March 1847, foodstuffs were loaded onto The Jamestown. It left Boston for Cork a week later, taking only 15 days and three hours to complete the transatlantic journey. All of the crew were volunteers. The captain, Robert Forbes, caustically commented that as the food supplies had taken only 15 days to cross the Atlantic, they should not take a further 15 days to reach the Irish poor. His comment was apt. The labyrinth of bureaucracy attached to the public works had meant that it had taken between 6 and 8 weeks for them to be operative – far too long for a people who were starving.

Forbes declared himself to be impressed with the women of Cork – because ‘they shake hands like a man.’ Although he was feted, he shied away from publicity and, significantly, refused an invitation from the authorities to travel to Dublin to receive an honor from the British government. This fantastic endeavor on behalf of the Irish poor was diminished only by the fact that on the return journey, a man was lost overboard – and he was the only Irish-born member of the crew.

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