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The Great Irish Famine (1845-49) was a calamity that killed about 1 million people and caused the emigration of many more. The famine was caused by the spread of the potato fungus Phytophthora infestans, which destroyed potato crops. The economic and human consequences of the famine and emigration were disastrous. In ten years, the island’s population fell from 8,500,000 to 6,000,000 (the decline intensified in the years that followed and at the beginning of the 20th century Ireland had a population of only 4,000,000). The number of inhabitants of Ireland, including those of Northern Ireland, does not reach 7 million even today.
At the other end of Europe, Sultan Abdulmejid I ruled The Ottoman Empire. To the great good fortune of the people of Ireland, the Sultan’s dentist was a fellow Irishman. Abdulmejid, learning of the great suffering of the people of Ireland, decided to intervene. Abdulmejid wanted to donate 10,000 pounds (10,000 pounds in 1850 would be worth about 1,300,000 pounds today), but Queen Victoria refused the offer because she had only offered 2,000 pounds.
Wanting to help the people in need, the Sultan agreed to donate 1,000 pounds, while secretly sending five ships loaded with food, medicine and essential commodities. The British government tried to prevent the ships from docking but they managed to arrive in Drogheda (56 kilometres north of Dublin) and distribute food and medicine, saving countless lives.
The Irish people would not forget this gesture: during the Crimean War (1853-56), some 30,000 Irish soldiers enthusiastically served in defence of the Sultan who had helped them in their time of need. During the First World War, on the other hand, it was not out of the ordinary to hear British officers complain about the unwillingness of the Irish to fight the Ottoman Empire.
In 1995 Mayor Alderman Godfrey and the Turkish Ambassador to Ireland Taner Baytok unveiled a plaque on the wall of a central building in Drogheda. The plaque reads: “The Great Irish Famine of 1847 – In remembrance and recognition of the generosity of the people of Turkey towards the people of Ireland”.
The town of Drogheda incorporated the crescent and star into its coat of arms as a sign of gratitude. The local football club, Drogheda United, also adopted the Turkish crescent and star as its coat of arms and has been twinned with the Turkish team Trabzonspor since 2011, as a further sign of the affection between these two peoples, which has not declined in 175 years.