The names Moses Montefiore, Paul de Strzelecki, and Abdul Medjid Khan are not common Irish names, yet they are the names of some of the strangers to Ireland who helped to relieve the suffering of the Irish during the Great Hunger of the 1840s. “The Kindness of Strangers” was the subject of Professor Christine Kinealy’s talk at the Irish Cultural Society meeting on March 12, 2014 at the Garden City Library. Dr. Kinealy shared with her audience her discoveries of kindness to the Irish which emerged from her research for her book Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland: The Kindness of Strangers.
Clare Curtin, Vice President of the Irish Cultural Society, introduced Professor Kinealy as the founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. In addition to the Kindness of Strangers book, she has written books on a variety of Irish subjects, such as on Daniel O’Connell and recent Irish history, and notably The Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845 – 1852. Dr. Kinealy was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame on the very day of her talk at the Irish Cultural Society.
Professor Kinealy introduced her talk with the playing of “Lone Shanakyle,” a mournful folk song of County Clare written in the language of melancholy about the losses from the Famine, including massive emigration. Her sketch of the history of Ireland before the 1840s included references to land appropriations which led to, by 1715, ownership of 95% of Irish land by non-Irish. By 1845, the start of the potato blight, the Irish population was 8,000,000 and corn and wheat, export crops, comprised 80% of the agricultural production of Ireland. Dr. Kinealy reminded her audience of the English government’s inadequate relief efforts and its “laissez faire” economic policy which it used to justify the export of food from the land of the starving. It was the weak government response to the needs of the Irish people which led to private relief efforts, the subject of Christine Kinealy’s talk.
Relief funds came to Ireland from across the Earth. From India’s India Relief Fund and Calcutta’s Irish Relief Fund, Professor Kinealy told her listeners, native Indians came forward liberally, often most generously where the means were shortest. The Quakers as early as autumn 1846 set up soup kitchens across Ireland and through its Central Relief Committee were in every county of Ireland.
From the Ottoman Empire came a gift of £1000 to the British Relief Association from Abdul Medjid Khan. The Sultan wanted to donate £10,000 but was advised by diplomats to reduce his donation to half of Queen Victoria’s donation so as not to offend British royal protocol.
From the Cherokee Nation, victims of the Trail of Tears, came $245.25 to which the Choctaw Indians added $170.00. Closer to home, the British Relief Association became the most successful relief group. The Queen’s £2000 to the Association gave the Association royal credibility which led to donations from the rich and royal. Lionel de Rothschild, banker and philanthropist, and Moses Montefiore both took active parts in supporting and managing the British Relief Association. Most generously, Paul de Strzelecki, a Polish count, worked without compensation for three years, ultimately becoming the leader of the Association, de Strzelecki becoming one of Ireland’s benevolent strangers.
Notable in America was the contribution of Myndert Van Schaick, from an old Dutch New York City family, who invited the elite of New York City to join him in forming his General Relief Committee in 1847. Not only did the wealthy contribute to his fund but also Irish serving girls and laborers. American cities large (Cleveland, Tallahassee, etc.) and small (Onondaga, NY; Louisburgh, NC; etc.) donated to Van Schaick’s committee.
A historical point made by Dr. Kinealy resonated with her audience in its reflection on today’s politics. She reported on a bill to send relief to Ireland and Scotland being turned down in the United States House of Representatives, the vote along party lines. One newspaper which supported the rejection wrote, “Where is it written that the Federal Government shall be the almoner of the Republic?” Private donations from the United States were generous and the government made three ships available to transport food to Ireland.
The Catholic Church and the Anglican Church played a vital role in fund raising. The Vatican reached across the globe in the Encyclical Praedecessores Nostros for worldwide assistance for the starving people of Ireland.
Christine Kinealy’s audience received an education in the devastation of Ireland’s Great Hunger and was reminded that kind and generous hearts abound across cultures, exhibited again and again in the Kindness of Strangers.
Clare Curtin thanked Professor Kinealy for sharing her scholarship with the Society’s members. She reminded Professor Kinealy that she is welcome back and that an enthusiastic audience is assured.