On December 15th 1846, Cork magistrate Nicholas Cummins visited the Skibbereen area to witness the effects of the Famine, and what he saw shocked him.
He wrote an open letter to the Duke of Wellington, graphically describing conditions here, asking him to forward it to the Queen.
Cummins also sent copies of his letter to newspapers, and it first appeared in the Cork Constitution and the Southern Reporter on December 19th; the Cork Examiner on December 21st, before receiving widespread attention when it featured in the Times of London on Christmas Eve 1846.
Its publication in the Times had a profound impact on British public opinion and prompted a strong humanitarian response, with many donations sent directly to Skibbereen.
The largest and most successful philanthropic organisation, the British Relief Association, was formed in London on January 1st 1847, shortly after its publication in the Times.
This organisation subsequently brought over £400,000 worth of aid to Ireland (€44.3m today) and Cummins’ nephew was a member of the Committee.
The letter went on to be reprinted in many newspapers across Ireland, Britain and America and was widely used during Famine fundraising appeals.
Cummins’ appeal to the Duke is probably the most frequently-quoted and important letter of the Famine era, and it undoubtedly helped to raise significant sums of money for relief in Ireland.
Heritage Centre manager Terri Kearney says it is appropriate that it will return to Skibbereen and, specifically, the heritage centre, as the primary exhibition at the museum, owned and operated by Cork County Council, is on Ireland’s Great Famine, as the Skibbereen area was one of the worst affected areas.
The letter resurfaced recently because, as one of the measures to celebrate Skibbereen Heritage Centre’s 20th anniversary of opening, Terri approached several museums and archives searching for famine material to display.
The Cork Public Museum produced the letter which had been sent by Vinton Hayworth in 1963. The letter was not believed to be an original.
Over several months of international correspondence Terri found a descendent of Nicholas Cummins (also a Nicholas Cummins) living in the UK who verified from documents held by him that this was either Cummins’ handwriting or that of his clerk as it matched several held by him.
‘We don’t know how Patrick O’Hare got the letter from Cummins, but we are working on that part of the puzzle,’ Terri told The Southern Star.
Terri wrote to Vinton Hayworth in January 2020 to the address given by him in 1963 when she established that the letter was real, but never heard anything back, so attempted to get in touch with another family member.
She also managed to establish contact with Rita Hayworth’s daughter, Princess Yasmin, who is notoriously private. The princess, though a bit ‘suspicious at first’, said Terri, later expressed her delight at the letter having been verified, and her wish to visit Ireland some day. ‘The whole story is a series of wonderful coincidences – finding the right Nicolas Cummins, and managing to make contact with the Princess, because I happened to email the right person who explained the significance to her,’ said Terri.