Bob Geldof sees precursor of his awareness tactics for famine in Africa in West Cork famine campaigner

Live Aid organiser says Unionist magistrate NM Cummins reminded him of himself in way he gripped British public in ‘moral armlock’ over famine

A 19th-century Irish magistrate used the very same “moral armlock” tactics to highlight the devastation of the Irish famine as Bob Geldof did when organising Band Aid and Live Aid to help millions of starving people in Africa, a history conference in West Cork will hear this weekend.

Live Aid organiser, Bob Geldof will tell those attending the West Cork History Festival in person and remotely that he saw a huge similarity between what he did in the 1980s to highlight the plight of people in Africa and NM Cummins who highlighted the plight of famine victims in West Cork.

Mr Cummins visited the deserted hamlet of South Reen on the eastern side of Castlehaven Harbour in West Cork in December 1846 to see for himself the devastation caused by the Famine, and he wrote to the British prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, urging him to immediately provide relief.

“I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause (of the desertion of the hamlet), and the scenes that presented themselves were such no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of,” wrote Mr Cummins, who was described as being of a unionist persuasion.


“In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearance dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, naked above the knees. I approached in horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive, they were in fever — four children, a woman, and at what had once been a man.

“It is impossible to go through the details, suffice to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 of such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe. By far the greater number were delirious, either from famine or fever. Their demonic yells are still yelling in my ears, and their horrible images and fixed upon my brain.”

Mr Cummins concluded his letter to the Duke of Wellington, dated December 17th, 1846, by urging the Dublin born British prime minister not to forget his fellow Irishmen in their hour of need as thousands were starving after the potato crop failed.

“Once more, my Lord Duke, in the name of starving thousands, I implore you, break the frigid and flimsy chain of official etiquette, and save the land of your birth — the kindred of the gallant Irish blood which you have so often seen lavished to support the honour of the British name — and let there be inscribed upon your tomb, Servata Hibernia. (Servant of Ireland).

Noting how Mr Cummins’ letter to the Duke of Wellington appeared in The London Times on Christmas Eve 1846, he will say he believed that Mr Cummins was a modern man in the manner in which he used a mass medium such as The London Times” to raise public awareness of the Irish famine.

Mr Gelfdof will say Mr Cummins, who lived at Ann Mount in Cork, was a modern campaigner as he said he saw huge similarities between the tactics Mr Cummins used in 1846 and he used more than a century later in 1984 with Band Aid to reach the widest audience and hold it “in a moral armlock”.

“This wasn’t the Irish Shoah ... but a population reduction of 50 per cent which in anybody’s language must be deemed a Holocaust just sweeping through a land taking the people, their language, and all that vast culture away from them. This Irish experience of the Famine resonates palpably in our response to famines today.

“One of the people who couldn’t turn away was Nicholas Cummins ... he seems to me to be a very modern man. It’s a bit embarrassing that it’s me talking about this, but all the language of this letter and the people to whom he addresses it, and the moral armlock he puts on them, is very reminiscent to me of that time in 1984 when we were alerted to the great African famine. It lasted roughly the same length of time and wasn’t as devastating as what happened to the Irish.”

“Cummins wrote very baldly about what he saw. Like Band-Aid, he invoked the spirit of Christmas time and used a global medium: “The Times had become a significant channel of communication ... a mass medium ... this man Cummins knew exactly what he was doing ...”

Mr Geldof will open this year’s West Cork History Festival programme with a recorded talk about Cummins letter and attendees will also hear from historians talking about the famine to mark the 175th anniversary of Black ‘47 when an estimated one million died and another million emigrated.

For further information on the West Cork History Festival, which will also feature lectures on the Bandon Valley Killings in 1922, please visit

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times