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Saturday 19 October 2019

Celebrating a Polish hero who fed our children during Great Famine


Alan O'Keeffe

A Polish nobleman who helped 200,000 Irish children survive the Great Famine is being honoured with an exhibition in Dublin.

Count Paul Edmund Strzelecki arrived in Co Mayo in 1847 to spearhead a charity's efforts to save the poor from starvation.

"No pen can describe the distress by which I am surrounded," he wrote in Westport in March that year.

He succeeded in saving huge numbers of children by devising methods of feeding them in their schools in famine-hit regions across Ireland.

An exhibition on the work of Strzelecki during Ireland's darkest years is taking place at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. The exhibition, organised and funded by the Polish Embassy, was created by UCD associate professor Emily Mark-FitzGerald and Queen's University Belfast history professor Peter Gray.

Dr Mark-FitzGerald told the Sunday Independent: "Strzelecki was a really fascinating individual. There are very few stories of heroism in the famine period. In the way he gave himself in a selfless way, he really stands out."

Born near Poznan in Poland in 1797, he became a well-known scientist and explorer, travelling the world and mapping different regions of Australia and Tasmania. He criticised the British government's treatment of the Aborigine population who lost their lands and were suffering great hardship.

He was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's gold medal in 1845 and became a naturalised British subject.

He was deeply moved by the emerging famine catastrophe in Ireland following the potato blight. The Society of Friends - better known as the Quakers - were among the first to publicise the mass deaths from late 1846.

A charity was set up in January 1847 in London, the British Association for the Relief of Distress in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. Its committee included prominent bankers and its patron was Queen Victoria who donated £2,000 (around €200,000 in today's values). The charity raised a total of £470,000 (€41m in today's values).

Strzelecki volunteered to do unpaid relief work for the charity in Ireland and he was appointed to oversee the charity's work in Co Donegal, Co Mayo and Co Sligo.

He was shocked by the conditions he saw. The suffering was so widespread he wrote to the association in London stating: "It has reached such a degree of lamentable extremes that it becomes above the power of exaggeration and misrepresentation."

He set up soup kitchens and feeding programmes in Westport and in many remote areas. By July, some three million people had received food relief in the worst parts of Ireland.

His idea of feeding the children of suffering families in schools, mostly with rye bread, was extended to many parts of Ireland. By March 1848, almost 200,000 children in the west were benefiting from the school meal programme which saved many young lives.

The association's funds ran out in the summer of 1848 - and the British government chose not to continue assisting the charity. It closed down and recalled Strzelecki, but the 1848 potato crop failed, causing more mass starvation.

Stubbornly, Strzelecki personally set up another charitable fund in Britain after the next potato crop failure.

He returned in June 1849, travelling 2,700 miles around the country distributing aid. He was later knighted.

Prof Gray said: "There are so many stories of neglect or oppression that come out of the Famine that it is necessary to tell some of these more positive stories of people who engaged in self-sacrifice."

The exhibition at the Royal Irish Academy in Dawson Street, Dublin has a website at On Wednesday, Prof Gray and Dr Mark-FitzGerald will deliver a lunchtime lecture at the RIA on Strzelecki and the Great Famine

Sunday Independent

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