Famine letter once held by Rita Hayworth's family to return to Skibbereen

Famine letter once held by Rita Hayworth's family to return to Skibbereen
Skibbereen Heritage Centre has acquired an open letter dating from December 1846 from a Cork Magistrate to the Duke of Wellington, regarding the appalling state of West Cork due to the famine. Picture: Andy Gibson

A letter, written in 1846 and credited with helping to raise funds from all over the world to combat the Great Famine, has been returned to Skibbereen, one of the areas worst affected by that crisis.

The letter, written by a Justice of the Peace, was once in the hands of the family of Hollywood superstar Rita Hayworth, whose daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, has welcomed its return to Skibbereen, where it will go on display in the town's heritage centre next week.

It was originally believed to be just a copy of a number of letters written by Cork-based Justice of the Peace Nicholas Cummins, who sent them to newspapers to highlight the huge number of people dying in the West Cork town. He even had one published in the Times of London, which was a direct appeal to the Duke of Wellington to take action to prevent further deaths.

It initially made its way to America with Patrick Aloysius O'Hare and his mother, who fled Cork in the famine's aftermath. It was passed on to Vinton Hayworth, the uncle of Rita Hayworth and uncle, by marriage, of Ginger Rogers. He was also an actor who appeared in more than 90 Hollywood films.

It was held in the family until it was sent to the Mayor of Cork in 1963 by Mr Hayworth because, he said, "it would please grandpa to see it returning to Cork."

It was stored in the public museum in Fitzgerald's Park. However, after a lot of research, staff at the heritage centre were able to verify it is an original copy of this famous Famine letter, written by Cummins.

"We were so excited to be able to authenticate the letter and wanted to get in touch with the Hayworth family to make them aware of it," heritage centre manager Terri Kearney said. 

“And so, after some effort, we were delighted to get in contact with Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, to tell her of the letter's significance and her ancestor's role in preserving it.” 

Ms Kearney said the princess had found the whole story fascinating and said it meant a lot to discover the importance of the letter and how her maternal ancestors managed to save it for posterity.

In correspondence with Ms Kearney, she wrote that she hopes some day to get to see it in person.

“I will certainly learn more about this crisis of the Great Hunger to find out about what my great-great-grandfather and his mother would have experienced before they emigrated. I am so proud of the role my mother's family played in saving this important letter and the fact that it will be on display at Skibbereen Heritage Centre,” the princess said.

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