Speech at a Reception for the Irish Community in Turkey
Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, 23rd April 2015
Good Afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen,
As President of Ireland I am delighted to receive so many opportunities to meet and engage with Irish communities all over the world. Today is such an occasion and it is a pleasure to see so many of you here in Istanbul. May I say a special word of welcome and thanks to those of you who have travelled from other parts of Turkey to join us here today.
While the Irish community in Turkey is a small one, it is also an active and well integrated one, and we are grateful and proud of how admirably you represent Ireland at this other end of Europe.
Istanbul (and Turkey), as a true crossroads of the world, is a most interesting place in which to make a new home and form new communities. Its long history constitutes a rich tapestry made from religious, linguistic and ethnic identities mixed in a way that has made Constantinople-Byzantium-Istanbul a truly cosmopolitan capital.
It is also inspiring to see the modern city emerging once again as a centre of world trade and as a hub for travellers between the continents. Sabina and I look forward to visiting some of the great historic sites before we leave Turkey and to absorbing some of the atmosphere that makes this city so unique.
In recent years trade and tourism, and indeed marriage between Irish and Turkish men and women, have forged ever stronger bonds between our peoples, bonds that will continue to grow and flourish as Turkey’s engagement with Europe and the European Union do, we hope, deepen.
There are also, however, earlier and insufficiently known historical links between our countries. It is recorded in the State papers of Turkey and Britain how, during that dark chapter of our national experience that was the great Irish Famine, An Gorta Mór, the then 23 year old Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Abdülmecid I – who had become Sultan at the age of 16 – despite facing severe financial difficulties himself, offered £10,000 to help alleviate the suffering of the Irish people. The story goes that he was dissuaded from giving so much in preference for a lesser amount of £1,000, as it would have been considered distasteful had the Sultan contributed more than the Ruler of the British Empire.
It has also been suggested that the Sultan sent a number of ships with supplies of food to Ireland in addition to the cash donation. Whatever the details of the transaction, this act of great generosity and compassion towards the people of a distant land stands today as a powerful symbol of the friendship and empathy that exists between the Irish and Turkish people. It is also notable that the Sultan’s medical adviser at that time, a Dr M’Carthy from Ireland, is thought to have played a part in sensitising the young Sultan to the catastrophe unfolding in Ireland.
This is just one of many instances where, over the centuries, the Irish abroad have used their influence to the benefit of their fellow Irish women and men at home. It is an admirable tradition, that continues to this day. It is an indication, too, of that positive internationalism that prompts responses to hunger and humanitarian crises – that is the very antithesis of war. It is an internationalism we continue to need.
I have come to Turkey to join with other leaders from around the world in the solemn ceremonies to commemorate the sacrifices of those who died in the terrible battles at Gallipoli, which began one hundred years ago this week. This is, of course, a poignant occasion for our country as, amongst the hundreds of thousands who died or were wounded in this slaughter of World War One, were thousands of men from all parts of the island of Ireland.
Perhaps less well known in Ireland than the campaigns on the Western Front, the memory of Gallipoli can now resonate in a modern Ireland, as we have available to us the documents, letters, diaries and memoirs of former soldiers – writings and papers that considerably enrich our historical studies and the documentaries and films that they make possible.
The story of Gallipoli, like that of World War One itself, is a story of immense human loss and suffering and great social cost; it is a story, too, of military calculation gone wrong, causing so many men to die, and amongst them at least 3,500 Irish men who lost their lives. Some fought in British army uniforms and others with regiments from their new homes in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. They may have had different motivations for fighting but few could have realised what lay in store for them or the enormous price they would pay. That price would continue to be paid by the infirmed, and would include a social exclusion for many on their return.
We must also acknowledge that these men were directed to inflict death and suffering as part of an ill-conceived and ill-fated invading force: Turkish soldiers fell in their tens of thousands defending their homeland, their losses heavily outnumbering the losses on the allied side.
The subsequent reaction to the Irish involvement in Gallipoli was very different, in our national consciousness and collective memory, from that surrounding those who returned to Australia or New Zealand. Indeed a struggle for independence was underway in Ireland. Many of those who had served with the British Army were marginalised, and a rift was opened between those who may have had poverty as their shared background.
But perhaps there is something in the aggressive nature of the Gallipoli campaign itself, and its calamitous execution, that marks it out as one where recollection’s rewards are little other than regret, anger and, perhaps, the acknowledgement of guilt on the part of its authors.
Today, we pay our respect to the memory of all those men whose potential and promise were lost in Gallipoli a century ago. We do so with a new, more inclusive insight and understanding of the circumstances of the time; we come together with other nations whose tragic stories make up the experience of the first World War, remembering the dead and wounded, the broken lives, the bereaved families and loved ones, and the communities that had to pay the enormous price of that catastrophic war brought about by the collision of empires in their pursuit of power.
As we seek an ethical basis for remembering, we must also recall that events such as Gallipoli did not prevent a Second World War in Europe.
This decade sees a very full calendar of centenaries and anniversaries, both in Ireland and all over Europe. Next year, Ireland will commemorate the Easter Rising of 1916 – a seminal event in Ireland’s path to independence. The centenary will be an opportunity for all of us Irish to engage with the complex events of that year, as well as of the decades that preceded and succeeded 1916. People of all ages, in Ireland and overseas, will have the opportunity to engage in reflection, ethical commemoration, and informed debate about the future we wish to craft together.
An important part of the Irish Government’s commemoration will be a Global and Diaspora Programme, supported by our Embassy network all around the world, which will invite all those with an interest in Ireland to play their part in this important centenary.
I greatly hope that our Irish community here in Turkey will be represented at some of the events designed to reflect the history which binds all those of Irish birth and descent, wherever in the world they may now live.
May I conclude by thanking you all once again for your presence here today. It is clear that Turkey has a vibrant Irish community, and I am also pleased to see many Turkish friends of Ireland joining us. Their presence is further evidence of the enduring and growing links between our countries and peoples. There can be no doubt that relations between Ireland and Turkey have grown and prospered since a Turkish representation was first established in Ireland in 1973 and, indeed since the establishment of the Irish Embassy in Ankara seventeen years ago. Last year, bilateral trade between our two countries was €1.2 billion, with Irish companies continuing to win new business in Turkey and an increasing number of Turkish businesses demonstrating an interest in Ireland as a location for new operations.
I am delighted that we are joined today by clients and contacts of the recently established Enterprise Ireland office in Istanbul. I hope that your contacts today have been fruitful, and I am confident that our growing commercial links will foster even stronger ties and raise awareness of Ireland in Turkey.
I hope that you will enjoy this reception and I look forward to the opportunity of meeting some of you this afternoon.