The first international fundraising activities for the Irish Famine began in 1845, following the initial appearance of the potato blight, and picked up in the wake of the second, and far more devastating, failure of the potato crop in 1846. Outside intervention was short-lived, however, and by 1848, most of the donations had dried up. Sadly, the Famine was far from over, with more people dying in 1849 than in ‘Black ’47.’
The first place to send money to Ireland was Calcutta in India. The fundraising effort was initiated in 1845 by British citizens who believed that their actions would show the Irish people the benefits of being part of the British Empire. Over forty percent of the British army serving in India were Irish-born and they gave generously. Donations came from wealthy Hindus and a number of Indian princes, but also from those who were less well off, including sepoys in the army, and from many low-skilled and low-paid Indian servants. Within a few months, the Calcutta Committee had raised £14,000 for the relief of the Irish poor.
Just as relief efforts were getting underway in India, a committee was established in Boston in the United States. In America, perhaps inevitably, Famine relief became tied up with demands for Irish political independence, with the committee being formed at the initiative of the local Repeal Association (followers of Daniel O’Connell). Predictably, the food shortages were cited as the most recent example of British misrule and of the failure of the British Empire. At a meeting in early December 1845, at which $750 was raised for the Irish poor, one speaker claimed that, due to “the fatal connection of Ireland with England, the rich grain harvests of the former country are carried off to pay an absentee government and absentee landlords.”
A number of fundraising committees were established in both Ireland and Britain. One of the most successful and well-respected was the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, which was established in Dublin in November 1846, at the suggestion of Joseph Bewley (a tea and coffee merchant). Though the Irish Quakers were small in number (c. 3,000), they were very successful in raising money outside Ireland. These funds played an important role in providing relief, particularly through the establishment of soup kitchens. By the end of 1847, when their funds dried up, the Quakers had distributed approximately £200,000 worth of relief throughout Ireland.
An even larger relief organization was the British Relief Association. It was formed in January 1847 by Lionel de Rothschild, a Jewish banker in London. Again, its fundraising activities were international, with donations being received from locations as diverse as Venezuela, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Russia and Italy. In total, over 15,000 individual contributions were sent to the Association, and approximately £400,000 was raised. This money was entrusted to a Polish Count, Paul de Strzelecki, a renowned scientist and explorer. He traveled to Counties Mayo and Sligo in 1847, where he established schools at which free food was given to the local children.
Unfortunately, the involvement of relief organizations has been tainted by the memory of proselytism or, as it is known in Ireland, souperism, that is, giving relief to the Catholic poor in return for their conversion to Protestantism. Proselytism was not new in Ireland, but its use during this period of suffering seems particularly reprehensible. However, although it is generally associated with the main Protestant churches in Ireland (the Anglican and the Presbyterian) in reality it was only practiced by a minority of evangelicals, who genuinely believed that they were saving souls, not merely lives, by their actions. By the end of 1848 the number of “Bible schools” had grown to 28, despite “priestly opposition.”
In popular memory, Queen Victoria is remembered as “The Famine Queen” for allegedly only giving £5 to help the starving Irish. In reality, she donated £2,000 to the British Relief Association in January 1847. This made the Queen the largest single donor to Famine relief. She also published two letters, appealing to Protestants in England to send money to Ireland. Her involvement was widely criticized at the time, notably by the influential newspaper the London Times, which argued that giving money to Ireland would have the same effect as throwing money into an Irish bog.
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 the 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, Sultan Abdulmecid reduced his donation to £1,000.