This letter, signed by Nicholas Cummins, is a

This letter, signed by Nicholas Cummins,
is a historical document of great significance because it represented the
matter of life or death in the midst of one of the biggest tragedies Ireland
has ever witnessed, the Great Irish Potato Famine. The author of the letter,
being a magistrate of Cork, Ireland (Justice of the Peace) at the time, was
able and, more importantly, willing to see for himself the devastating
consequences of the Great Hunger and ,later,
the ignorance of the ones who were in a position to but refused to help. The
letter addressed to the Dublin-born Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, was
written on 17th Dec 1846 and purposefully published on Christmas Eve
1846 in ‘The London Times’ as people were digging into their abundant festive
menus so as to try to shake them out of their complacency and create a sense of
urgency.

The Great Irish Potato Famine is a period
of time between 1845 and 1852 when Ireland was faced with mass starvation,
disease and emigration due to the potato blight which killed off almost all the
potato crops in Ireland, the crops that the third of the inhabitants solely
relied on to live. The statistics were devastating, about a million people died
in the most inhumane conditions whereas another million people tried to reach,
and often died en route to, the shores of the USA in search for food  and hope for a better life.

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In order to understand how The Great
Hunger managed to reach such biblical proportions and find out Nicholas
Cummins’ reasons for writing the non-apologetic letter we need to look at the political
and economic scene at the time, apart from the effect the Mother Nature had on
Ireland’s agriculture.

In 1846 Ireland was part of the United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a new sovereign state which was formed in
1801 under the Act of Union in spite of great opposition on both sides. This
meant the Irish parliament, once independent, was abolished and Ireland (mainly
Catholic) was represented by Anglican MPs and Lords at Westminster.

Adverse weather conditions and consecutive
recurrence of the potato blight put Ireland in an extremely vulnerable
position. John Peel, the British Prime Minister at the time, resigned in June
1846 because of his inability to pass the repeal of the Corn Law which was
supposed to lower the prices of the crops so that the Irish could afford it.
Consequently, The Liberals (also known as the Whigs) took over the Conservative
government. The man put in charge to deal with the famine crisis was named Charles
Trevelyan. He mercilessly signed the death sentence to many Irish people by his
cruel, laissez faire (free trade) politics. His biggest worry was the impact
the crisis would have on the private sector. Therefore, he made sure it was as
unaffected as possible by claiming the Irish should be less dependent on
England and by closing the food depots, advising the unreasonable formation of
the local relief committees when the Irish didn’t even have clothes to cover
themselves with and by doing nothing to stop the great quantities of oats and
grains being exported. The Irish watched how the products of their own hard
labour were taken from them on numerous ships and little food that was left on
the island they had no money for, leaving them to choose between a roof above
their heads or a short-lasting few spoonfuls of food to keep them going. One of
the comments from that period sums up the irreparable consequences of
Trevelyan’s decisions : “God
sent the blight, but the English made the famine.”

The reason Nicolas Cummings, haunted by
the horrors he witnessed while visiting South Reen and Skibbereen, two Irish
towns close to Cork, decides to write a letter, as mentioned above, to the Duke
of Wellington might lie in the fact that the Duke himself was born in
Ireland  while at the same time ,though
retired, he was a very influential and respected political figure with ties to
the government and the queen. By starting the letter provokingly with “Without
apology or preface, I presume so far to trespass on your Grace as to state to
you, and, by the use of your illustrious name…” he tries to get the reader’s immediate attention
without feeling the need to conform to the social etiquette. As a matter of
fact, he is fully aware that extraordinary situations require extraordinary
measures and one thing that he immediately wants to avoid is people’s indifference.

He does that
also by diving into the description of devastation that surrounded him. He
paints unimaginable and sinister scenes that look like they have been taken out
of a horror book. The words he uses to describe what once were people” famished and ghastly skeletons… phantoms…
frightful spectres… demonic yells… throng of pestilence…”, have as the aim
to present the bitter reality in Ireland and awaken in the reader the feeling
of guilt and desire to act. He carries on with his description with “In another case – decency would forbid what
follows, but it must be told..” which again reinforces the necessity to
tell what needs be told no matter how uncomfortable might it be for the reader.
After all, that is exactly Cumming’s goal.

The question
“To what purpose should I multiply
such cases? is there to question again the reader’s consciousness, as if to
say ‘Do you really need me to go on? Isn’t this enough to get up and help these
people who happen to be our countrymen and next door neighbours?’. By using
religious references such as ‘…they shall
one day hear the Judge of all the Earth…’ he is playing on the people’s
religious beliefs and hoping they will make the right decision after reading
the letter because sooner or later they will be’ judged’ for their inactions.

Even though
the beginning of the letter is quite daring, direct and goes straight to the
point he doesn’t use insults and avoids imperative language as he if fully
aware it might be counter-productive. However, the message that is implied is
that it is only them, the British, who can remedy the chaos. By the end of the
letter, his tone mellows down a bit as he shifts his attention to the Duke of
Wellington and praises him for being ‘an old
and justly honoured man’ while calling on him to get the Queen Victoria
involved as he is sure ‘she will not
allow decency to be outraged’ and showing faith that she will react by
responding to this appeal.

Very
powerful and emotional ending to the letter begs the Duke to ‘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’. He is emphasizing the need to forget about the formalities,
protocols, politeness and bureaucracy, to skip unnecessary steps, use common
sense and just be decent human beings who will recognise the suffering of
others and show proactivity, generosity and compassion. After all, the Irish
have always been there when the British needed them.

In
conclusion, even such poignant words didn’t succeed in getting enough help as
the great damage had already been done and the letter, regardless of its aim,
failed to save many lives. Needless to say, many of the atrocities mentioned
above could have been avoided if Ireland wasn’t treated like a child with a
mild cold. Following the principle ‘out of sight, out of mind’, British politicians
failed to see the enormous scale of the suffering of the Irish. By following
the free trade doctrine and prescribing the same medicine to everyone, the responsible
people at Westminster showed little interest in understanding the core of the
problem and  were reluctant to admit that
Ireland was dealing with something that required a different and more
compassionate political approach.

 Throughout the history and the volatile
relationship between Britain and Ireland, the Irish wanted to be independent from
the central government in London and the British wanted to govern them. So it
seems almost ironic that the British decided not to interfere and to give them
a ‘partial independence’, which Trevelyan explained by ‘Irish property should support Irish poverty’, just as the biggest
famine in the Irish history struck.

What
happened afterwards was unavoidable and justified. The Irish fought for their
independence and it was finally achieved in 1921 while the mainly Protestant
North remained part of the Great Britain.

The Great
Irish Potato Famine is a story in which natural factors started the devastation
that grew unnecessarily out of proportions because of people’s ignorance that
cost Ireland 25 % of its population’s lives. Various mass graves containing between
8000 and 10000 bodies are a testament to this. Today, Ireland remembers and
shows respect to the famine victims on the National Famine Memorial Day during
which the candles are lit and rowan trees planted in remembrance.

At present, we like to think that this kind of
scenario can’t ever be repeated but in reality there are still many people in
need of drinking water and food all over the world. Even though the information
is more easily accessible nowadays and we see people and some governments mobilising
themselves to gather and send the necessary help, their efforts are often
ruined by the corrupt governments and wars. Even though Cummins’ letter might
have arrived a bit too late, what we take from it is that it is absolutely
essential that we continue to speak up in the name of the ones who are hungry
and thirsty and against political agendas that only look after the rich, because
food and drink are  basic human needs and
everyone has a right to have easy access to it and live a dignified life.

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