By Kevin O’Sullivan
Think of Africa in the mid-1980s and a distinct set of images comes to mind. Ethiopia. Sudan. Famine. Michael Buerk on the BBC lifting the media veil on Korem refugee camp, “the closest thing to hell on earth”. Band Aid. “Feed the world”. Live Aid. Bob Geldof imploring the watching public to “give us your money NOW”.
In Ireland Live Aid evokes memories of a unique public display of energy and emotion. Pride that on 13 July 1985 one of Ireland’s own was the driving force behind the first global media fund-raising extravaganza of its kind. Pride in the £7.5 million pledged from a country crippled by high taxation, unemployment and emigration – the highest per capita donation in the world. Pride in U2’s performance, as Bono’s famous off-stage foray catapulted the band into even greater realms of stardom. And, above all, pride in the role played by Irish NGOs like Concern, Goal, Trócaire, Self Help, Gorta, the Irish Red Cross, Christian Aid, Oxfam, even the IFA, in assisting the millions affected by famine in Ethiopia and Sudan.
Bob Geldof felt it too. In the early evening of 13 July, after Queen and the 80,000-strong crowd at Wembley stadium announced they had “no time for losers”, he made one of his regular telephone calls to Dublin to gauge the reaction in his home city. “It’s amazing, Bob. We’ve got old ladies down here. More than a dozen of them. They say they have nothing to give except their wedding rings. They want us to pawn them for money.”
Among the 1.5 billion who tuned in worldwide, the 3 million watching from Ireland became Geldof’s touchstone that afternoon, a yardstick against which to measure the international response and a reminder that the importance of the issue – famine in the Horn of Africa – had not been lost amidst the music and the spectacle. In the RTÉ studios, Glenroe’s Mick Lally, Joe Lynch, Mary McEvoy and a host of other celebrities manned the phones for a live telethon. The public pledged money or placed bids on items donated for auction: a Gay Byrne hand-made racing bicycle, a case of Dom Perignon champagne, an Opel Corsa, an evening gown by John Hockaday, a rugby ball signed by the Irish Triple Crown winners. When Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald appeared in studio to contribute £250,000 on behalf of the government, a viewer pledged £5,000 for his tie.
The fund-raising developed a momentum of its own. RTÉ’s target of £500,000 was easily surpassed. At 11.15 p.m., the television studio erupted in celebration as the £1 million mark was reached. But the collections did not stop there. By the end of the week, the Irish total amounted £2.5 million, a figure that tripled in the months that followed.
Yet the question remained: what drove the Irish people to donate so much to this distant crisis? Certainly not a deep understanding of the root causes of poverty and under-development in the Third World. Irish commentators who pointed in disgust to the EC’s growing food mountains of grain, milk, butter and wine, were less willing to call for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the loosening of import restrictions on goods from the developing world. Media images of drought and widespread famine in Ethiopia and Sudan, while important in stimulating and sustaining the relief effort, glossed over the complicity of the authorities in both countries who used the disruption of food supplies and the displacement of peoples as weapons of civil war. Nor was there any discussion of the circumstances that led Médecins sans Frontières to withdraw their operation while other NGOs remained.
But however apolitical and at times coloured by “black baby syndrome” the response, the moral concern felt by the Irish public was no less a genuine motivating force. It was difficult to be cynical towards the actions of the Cork couple that donated £1,500 they had saved for an extension to their house or the hundreds inspired to leave Ireland to work alongside NGOs and on the official Irish aid programme.
Theirs was a particularly Irish (though not unique when compared to the Netherlands or the Nordic countries) reaction, built on a mix of history, culture and present concerns. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in November 1985 Geldof suggested that the Irish response had been roused by a “vivid folk memory” of the Great Famine. Jim O’Keeffe, the Fine Gael minister of state for development aid, pointed to a similar inspiration, born of stories of the 1840s heard in his childhood home in Skibbereen. The country’s tradition of voluntary service was also important. The thousands of Irish Christian missionaries who worked in local communities everywhere from Nigeria to the Philippines encouraged a sense of connection with the developing world in generations who grew up reading magazines like Africa and the Far East. They were joined by Irish aid workers in Biafra, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sudan and Ethiopia, who became the bearers of a new secular spiritualism.
In so doing they helped to forge a new identity for Ireland. Abroad, aid as embodied by Geldof, Mary Robinson’s visits to Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s, Bono’s globetrotting exploits, the efforts of Concern, Trócaire, Goal and others, and the central role Irish Aid came to assume in the state’s foreign policy, became part of what the Irish ‘do’ on the world stage.
At home, Geldof’s enormous self-confidence rubbed off on an Irish youth eager to flex its muscles and to show the administrators who managed Ireland’s public affairs so dismally that there was, indeed, an alternative way out from the country’s political and economic malaise. In the energy they exuded it is now easy to see the first shoots of the sense of optimism and release that characterised the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. How we could do with it now.
Image by Squelle.