PHILANTHROPIST Polish explorer and scientist Count Paul Strzelecki, who pioneered a programme for feeding Irish children, particularly in the west, during the Famine.
Fr Kevin Hegarty
In the last quarter of a century or so many Polish people have come to live in Mayo. They are making a significant contribution to the social, economic and cultural life of the county.
Currently the ‘Museum of Country Life’ in Turlough is hosting three exhibitions focused on Polish culture, as covered by Áine Ryan in last week’s Living section of The Mayo News. One of the three is about a Polish native who helped us in our time of greatest need, and it’s worth delving into his story a little deeper this week.
The exhibition is entitled, ‘A Forgotten Polish Hero of the Great Famine’, and it tells the story of Paul Strzelecki’s heroic ministry here from 1847 to 1850. Curated by Nikola Sekowski-Moroney of the Polish Embassy in Dublin, the exhibition is on a nationwide tour.
Strzelecki was born in 1792 in Poznan. His family were impoverished nobility. For the first three decades of his life, Poland was embroiled in conflict. After the Napoleonic wars the country was partitioned between Russia and Prussia. Poznan fell under Prussian control. When a Polish independence movement was defeated in 1830, Strzelecki left his native land.
London became his base, but he travelled widely as a geographer, geologist and mineralogist.
Between 1839 and 1843 he was in Australia. His sojourn there provided material for his book, ‘A Physical Description of Van Diemen’s Land’, which was well received and became a standard text for 40 years. In his interaction with the Aboriginal community he always displayed sensitivity to their native traditions.
On his return to London, he became aware of famine conditions in Ireland. The Great Famine began with the blighting of the potato crop in the autumn of 1845. Its consequences were especially felt between 1847 and 1850. Strzelecki knew the ravages of hunger himself, as he had experienced 22 days of starvation while exploring Gippsland in 1840.
He volunteered to work with the newly formed British Relief Association. The association had been set up by a group of wealthy English people to provide relief in famine-stricken Ireland and Scotland.
In January 1847, he was assigned to work in Mayo, Sligo and Donegal. In his first six months he provided 15 powerful and passionate reports on the human misery he witnessed daily. As someone who had been orphaned as a child he was acutely affected by the plight of children.
Distress in Mayo
On his arrival in Mayo, he based himself in Westport. In January 1847, he wrote:
“No pen can describe the distress by which I am surrounded. It has reached such a degree of lamentable extreme that it becomes above the power of exaggeration and misapprehension.
The sights that greeted him as he travelled through county copper-fastened his initial impressions:
“In the locality of Ballina, Foxford, Swinford and Castlebar, the desolate aspect of the country is more fearful still. The population seems as if paralysed and helpless, more ragged and squalid, they are stoically resigned to death; there again, as if conscious of some greater forthcoming evil, they are deserting their hearths and families. Of the fate, gloomy and awful, which overhangs the whole population, that of the poor children, and the babies at the breasts of their emaciated and enervated mothers, excites the deepest feelings of commiseration.”
He found Erris to be the worst affected part of Mayo. He ordered immediate supplies of food and clothing for the barony.
Though he contracted typhus in March 1847, which affected him for the rest of his life, it did not deter him from his humanitarian work. Working with government officials he established food and clothing depots throughout Mayo, Sligo and Donegal.
Plight of children
Strzelecki also devised a programme to alleviate the particular plight of children. First piloted in Westport, it eventually spread throughout the country. It was an innovative and non-sectarian system of feeding and clothing children through schools. At its peak, it cared for 201,427 children of all religious denominations each day.
Paul was a regular presence in Ireland until 1850. By then, the country was gradually emerging from the bleak 1840s. In the list of humanitarians who answered Ireland’s call during the ‘Great Famine’ he holds a high place.
Professor Christine Kinealy, the contemporary authority on those grim years, in her book ‘Charity and the Great Hunger’, offers a succinct assessment of his contribution:
“Strzelecki, a Polish nobleman with no connections to Ireland, perhaps more than any other individual personified a spirit of selflessness and sacrifice that had had helped to save an untold number of Irish lives.”