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Lessons from Irish history on the consequences of ignoring the famine in Somalia
Wednesday August 10, 2022

Bob Geldof’s recent speech highlights the parallels between the ‘Forgotten Ones’ then and now

People fleeing drought arrive at an aid camp in Mogadishu. Somalians are facing food shortages as drought has killed 3mn animals and caused crops to fail © Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

It has been nearly 40 years since Band Aid and Live Aid, but Sir Bob Geldof is back with another wake-up call to the world.

The activist musician, who once called himself a “loudmouth twat with hair”, wants us all to stop worrying for a moment about how the Ukraine war-fuelled cost of living crisis will impact us and start focusing on the famine that is devastating Africa again.

The 70-year-old Boomtown Rats frontman made his appeal after a visit to a village in County Cork in his native Ireland, whose plight alerted the world in 1846 to the scale of devastation in the country’s potato famine.

Just like Band Aid’s infamous Yuletide appeal to “feed the world”, a letter published in The Times on Christmas Eve 1846, written by Nicolas Cummins, a local justice of the peace, urged London for help. It described the “famished and ghastly skeletons”, frozen corpses devoured by rats and “demonic yells” of those “delirious, either from famine or fever” that he witnessed on a visit to South Reen.

Such “absolute horror . . . is happening this second in countless thousands of devastated farmlands all over this fragile world”, Geldof said in a statement after appearing at a history festival in West Cork via a video filmed in Reen, where he read Cummins’ letter.

The UN has warned that parts of Somalia, facing food shortages as drought has killed 3mn animals and caused crops to fail, could see full-blown famine by next month. The situation is also grave in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, according to aid groups.

Though the west dug deep to help its populations through Covid or to support Ukraine, a cash drought has compounded the misery: relief efforts have so far secured less than half the funding needed for Somalia, the Food and Agriculture Organization says.

Besides famine, Russia’s Black Sea blockade paralysed grain shipments from Ukraine for months, putting 47mn people globally at risk of acute hunger, according to the World Food Programme. Only recently have the first vital cargoes since the invasion been able to depart.

In the video, wearing a bright blue shirt, white jeans and shades, Geldof looked a far cry from the scruffy rocker of his youth — but his message had not lost his songwriting punch.

“It is understandable that people live their own lives full of their immediate concerns. And today we are all fearful of [Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s filthy illegal murder and its consequences, the price of everything, and . . . the uncertain world outlook,” he said.

But he insisted: “Development isn’t some feel-good function of virtue-signalling liberal democracy, it is a critical necessity of humanity and politics. Otherwise the spores of poverty find fertile ground in the poisonous fields of ethnicity, populism and nationalism. Ask Putin.”

UN sustainable development goals — which seek to end poverty and ensure peace and prosperity for all by 2030 — “sound boring, but the mind-deadening bureaucratic title belies the vital necessity of their aims, and we need to maintain our commitment to them”, he added.

Ireland understands what happens if you look away. Rural communities in the south and west were the most devastated after blight in 1845 struck the potato crop on which thousands relied — at that time, men would typically eat a staggering 6.35kg of potatoes a day. When early reports were deemed exaggerated, people like Cummins went to see for themselves.

An Gorta Mór — the Great Hunger — killed more than a million people and forced some 1.2mn more to emigrate. Irish language and culture was lost and the country’s population only last year rose above 5mn for the first time since 1851.

With a 21st-century double whammy of war and climate change, Geldof fears the world is turning away from the “newly Forgotten Ones of our time”.

Ireland knows all about that. Many blame laissez-faire officials in London at the time for abandoning the starving Irish to their fate.

Statistics in an exhibition on the famine in Dublin spell it out in chilling detail: Irish famine relief from 1845 to 1852: £7mn. The cost of sending troops to keep the peace in Ireland during the famine years: £10mn.


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