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January/February 2015


of an Irish-born London merchant. Canning admired the young

Sultan’s ambitions, but as one of the longest-serving diplomats

in the Ottoman court, he took the long view of their odds.

“He was a soft-natured, intelligent, work-conscious, dignified

but humble man enriched with compassion,” Canning

observed. “But he lacked the power and initiative to turn his

wishes into reality.”

Ultimately, Abdülmedjid proved Canning wrong and

might have gone on to achieve even greater reforms had he not

succumbed to tuberculosis at such an early age. He was frail his

entire life, and his poor health may have been why he surrounded

himself with doctors—foreign doctors in particular—though

according to historian Miri

Shefer-Mossensohn, such

indulgences were both

common and fashionable.

“French, Germans,

Italians. The Ottomans

always had European

physicians with them,

[together] with their own

Ottoman doctors, dating

back to the 15th century,”

says Shefer-Mossensohn,

author of


Medicine: Healing and

Medical Institutions, 1500-1700

. The rationale, she points out,

was essentially one based on probability: “The idea was, you

don’t know which physician is going to make you better, so let’s

have as many as we can and employ a variety of all skills.”

The record shows that among Abdülmedjid’s personal team of

specialists was Julius Michael Millingen, a Dutch-English doctor

who ministered to Lord Byron on his deathbed, a Viennese

anatomist named Spitzer—and an Irish physician from Cork

named Justin Washington McCarthy. Born the son of a barrister

around 1789, McCarthy was hailed on September 8, 1841, in

his hometown newspaper, the

Cork Examiner

, as “one who has

long attained considerable eminence as a physician in the Turkish

capital.” He trained in Edinburgh and Vienna before entering the

service of the Ottoman court under Abdülmedjid’s father more

than a decade earlier.

The first mention and earliest evidence of McCarthy’s

connection with the story of the Sultan’s food aid to the Irish

appears in the diary of Irish writer and patriot William J.

O’Neill Daunt. Writing from Edinburgh on January 17, 1853,

some six years after the event described, Daunt recollected

that “A Mr. M’Carthy [sic] came. His father is physician to the

Sultan.” In the next day’s entry, he reported, “M’Carthy (the

Turk) ... told me that the Sultan had intended to give £10,000

to the famine-stricken Irish, but was deterred by the English

Ambassador, Lord Cowley, as Her Majesty, who had only

subscribed £1,000, would have been annoyed had a foreign

sovereign given a larger sum.”

Details in Daunt’s story stand up. Queen Victoria in 1847

originally sent only £1,000 before later doubling her pledge. (For

her parsimony, the Irish press rewarded her with the sobriquet

“the famine queen.”)

McCarthy did have two sons, both born in Istanbul,

although which son was in Edinburgh that year remains

unknown. Lord Cowley was the Hon. Henry Wellesley,

Ambassador Canning’s

chargé d’affaires

, who served as acting

ambassador in 1847 while Canning was on leave in England.

Additionally, the bit about the Sultan reducing his donation out

of deference to the British

Crown appeared in print at

least three years earlier, in

the October 1850 issue of

The New Monthly


a London-based journal of

arts and politics. Writing

from Smyrna (modern Izmir),

on Turkey’s Aegean coast,

correspondent Mahmouz

Effendi praised “young

Sultan Abdul-Medjid, who,

in the recent Irish famine,

contributed the handsome

donation of 1,000


. sterling to relieve the distresses of those

whom his own creed regards as infidels ... and who would have

given more, much more, but that state etiquette was quoted to

show the reigning sovereign of England must, in these cases, be

permitted to head the list.”

On April 21, 1847, the London


praised the gift, briefly.




In addition to financial aid from Sultan Abdülmedjid


, in May and

June of 1847, three Ottoman ships arrived in Drogheda. Two came

from the Ottoman port of Thessalonica, laden with corn, and one

came from Stettin bearing red wheat. Although it is still unclear to

historians whether these ships arrived with donations or merely

commercial shipments, the Irish eloquently expressed their gratitude

in this ornate letter, which is now part of the Ottoman Archives in

Istanbul. A copy of it is kept by the National Library of Ireland.