|"A Polish Count in County Mayo. Paul de Strzelecki and the Great Famine" by prof. Christine Kinealy - this is a chapter from a recently published book "Mayo. History and Society" Ed. by Gerard Moran and Nollaig O Muraile". Reprinted with author's permission.
Private charity played a crucial role in saving lives during the Great Famine. While the contribution of the Society of Friends is generally acknowledged in the historiography of this period, the role of the British Relief Association has received little scholarly attention. Nonetheless, the latter organization raised over double the amount of money than was donated to the Quakers, and they continued to provide relief in Ireland when other charitable bodies had left. Moreover, the agent employed by the British Relief Association, Count Paul de Strzelecki, proved to be an effective champion on behalf of the starving Irish. This chapter provides a brief overview of the role played by Count Strzelecki in County Mayo after 1847.
Pawel Edmund de Strzelecki was born in 1797 in the Poznań region of Poland, to an old, but impoverished, noble family. At the time of his birth, Europe was in the midst of war and Poznań was occupied by Prussian troops. The conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 resulted in Poland being divided between two of the victors, Prussia and Russia, with Poznań returning to Prussian control. As a young man, Strzelecki travelled extensively. He left Poland finally in the wake of the failed rising of 1830, which had sought Polish independence. Although he made London his new home, he continued to travel the world as a geographer, geologist and mineralogist. As Strzelecki’s fame as an explorer grew, he was always referred to as a Polish Count, but he himself never signed or referred to himself as such. Although Strzelecki moved within high society, wherever he found himself, he demonstrated a concern for the poor and oppressed. In 1836, when he visited a captured slave ship in Brazil, he commented, ‘No sooner had I looked over the ship’s bulwarks than I felt that the chain that attached me to civilization had been broken’.
Strzelecki’s most successful explorations took place in Australia and Van Diemen’s Land, between 1839 and 1843. During this time, he climbed Australia’s highest mountain and named it after the Polish patriot Tadeusz Kosciusko, explored and charted the Gippsland district, and even discovered gold, but was persuaded not to make his finding public, the British government fearing it would prove too disruptive to the convict population. In total, he covered 7,000 miles on foot, often only accompanied by a convict servant. Strzelecki’s physical fitness, intrepid spirit and resourcefulness as an explorer were to prove invaluable during his time in the west of Ireland during the Famine.
Strzelecki’s findings were published in 1845 in the well-received ‘Physical descriptions of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land’, which remained the classic reference book for over 40 years. Shortly after its publication, he applied successfully for British citizenship. One of his main sponsors was Samuel Jones-Loyd, a prosperous English banker. Strzelecki, however, regardless of his achievements, had no regular income.
At the same time that Strzelecki’s book was published, a new form of potato blight was being reported in many parts of Europe, including England and Scotland. On 13 September, a leading horticultural newspaper announced:
"We stop the presses with great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland. The crops about Dublin are suddenly perishing. Where will Ireland be in the event of a universal potato rot?"
By November, newspapers in Count Mayo were carrying regular reports of the spread of the disease. Just as worryingly, the anticipated failure of the potato crop was forcing other food prices to rise throughout the county. For the most part though, in 1845-46, the government’s relief measures proved effective, with few cases of excess mortality in the year following the first appearance of disease. However, many of the poor in Mayo had suffered severe deprivation in the spring and summer months, leaving them with few resources to face a second year of shortages.
The reappearance of blight in 1846, earlier in the season and more virulently than in the previous year, was reported in the Mayo press as early as July 1846. Apprehensions about the loss were compounded by the fact that the oat and barley crop was predicted to be small. The government in London, under the new administration of Lord John Russell, responded to news of the impending shortfall in provisions by making public works available as the main form of relief. However, the system proved to be bureaucratically cumbersome, expensive, and an inappropriate test of destitution on a people who were already hungry and weak.
As daily reports of suffering and death appeared in newspapers throughout the world, a massive fund-raising project got under way, with even people who had no connection to Ireland, wanting to donate. In 1845, there had been a few isolated responses to the food shortages, the most successful being in India, where a Relief Fund had been formed at the instigation of English administrators. The second, more devastating, failure prompted a larger and more organized charitable response that was unprecedented in its geographic range.
Two of the most active committees formed, both based in Dublin, were those of the Society of Friends and the Irish Relief Association. Their approach was different. While individual Quakers undertook to travel personally to the west of Ireland in order to provide relief, often in the form of soup kitchens, the Irish Relief Association worked through local individuals and committees, providing them with meal, grants and, importantly, soup cauldrons. In County Mayo, the Irish Relief Association worked with Rev. Pounden, the Rector of Westport, and Rev. Nangle, who ran a missionary station on Achill Island. Unfortunately, Rev. Pounden died of fever in April 1847. His untimely death was a reminder of the perils of working too closely with the poor.
Although the idea of creating a fund-raising association based in London had been formulated at the end of 1846, the first official meeting of the British Association for the Relief of Distress in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland did not take place until 1 January 1847. As its name suggested, portion of its funds (one-sixth) was to be used to help the Scottish poor in areas where the potato had also failed. The British Relief Association had largely been the brainchild of the successful Anglo-Jewish banker, Lionel de Rothschild, and he and his brother, Meyer, played active roles in the day-to-day running of the committee. They were joined by some of the leading merchants and bankers in London, together with a small number of MPs.
Their chairman was Samuel Jones-Loyd. At the first meeting of the Association, it was agreed that they would assist people who were beyond the reach of government aid and provide, ‘food, clothing and fuel, but in no case money … to the parties relieved’. However, as the extent of suffering in Ireland revealed itself, their approach became far more flexible, and money grants were sometimes given. What distinguished the Association from the other relief organizations operating in Ireland was that they decided to work closely with the British government, in order to make the most efficient use of their resources. This arrangement proved to be particularly beneficial to government officials who, on numerous occasions, relied on the resources of the Association to financially support their own, inadequately-funded, relief measures.
Within days of being formed, the Association achieved a major publicity coup when they were informed that Queen Victoria was to give them a donation of £2,000. A few weeks later, they were told that they were to be the beneficiary of the proceeds of a ‘Queen’s Letter’ that was to be read in Anglican churches in Britain, calling for prayer and donations for Ireland. Additionally, the Association proved successful in fund-raising for Ireland and Scotland. In the year that followed its establishment, they received in the region of 15,000 individual donations, which came from all over the world and from diverse social and religious groups. In total, over £470,000 was raised - far more than any other relief organization.
On 20 January, Jones-Loyd, mentioned his friend Count Strelitzski [sic] ‘a Polish gentleman of extensive travel had offered his personal services gratuitously to Ireland with a view of being useful to the committee’. The next day, Strzelecki’s offer was accepted and ‘the Secretary in informing Count Strzelecki himself, do thank him for his tender of service, and do write him to attend the committee tomorrow’. Following this meeting, Strzelecki immediately left for Dublin, in order to meet Sir Randolph Routh, chairman of the Relief Commission. He then proceeded to counties Donegal, Mayo and Sligo, where he had been asked to report on the condition of population and to distribute a cargo of food on behalf of the Association.
Strzelecki’s journey to the west of Ireland was not an easy one. The extreme weather of the winter of 1846-47 - snow, rain, hail, frost and bitter cold – hampered his movements. Undaunted though, when, as occurred on a number of occasions, his carriage became stranded due to snow drifts, he proceeded to his destination on foot. Upon arrival in County Mayo, Strzelecki chose Westport to be his base. He immediately wrote to the committee in London:
"No pen can describe the distress by which I am surrounded. It has actually reached such a degree of lamentable extreme that it becomes above the power of exaggeration and misapprehension. You may now believe anything which you hear and read, because what I actually see surpasses what ever read of past and present calamities."
The personal testimonies of Strzelecki and other volunteers who traversed Ireland in 1846 and 1847 provided a powerful counter-balance to suggestions in the sections of the British press that the suffering of the Irish had been embellished.
It was not only Strzelecki who experienced weather-related problems. Heavy snow falls, which continued as late as April 1847, hampered the progress of both government and private relief officials, while impeding the output of those employed in the public works, many of whom were inadequately clothed. The coming of warm weather proved to be problematic also. On 25 March 1847, Strzelecki reported from Westport that:
"The sudden warmth of the weather and the rays of a bright sun, accelerate prodigiously the forthcoming end of those whose constitutions are undermined by famine or sickness. Yesterday, a countrywoman, between this and the harbour (one mile distance), walking with four children, squatted against a wall on which the heat and light reflected powerfully; some hours after, two of her children were corpses, and she and the two remaining ones taken lifeless to the barracks. Today, in Westport, similar melancholy occurrences took place."
As Strzelecki travelled to other parts of Mayo, he realized that no part of the county had escaped the ravages of famine:
"… in the locality of Ballina, Foxford, Swineford [sic], Castlebar, the desolate aspect of the country is more fearful still. The population seems as if paralyzed and helpless, more ragged and squalid; here fearfully dejected, there 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."
Strzelecki was particularly affected by the scenes he witnessed in the remote parts of Belmullet, an area of 25,000 people spread over 400 square miles. The local Relief Committee were inefficient, and so people who were already weak and hungry, including those employed on the public works, had to walk up to 30 miles in order to obtain food. Strzelecki responded immediately, by appointing a ‘Special Committee’ consisting of the two Protestant clergymen, a Catholic Priest and the local Coast Guard, to oversee the distribution of a grant from the Association. As Strzelecki had realized upon arrival in Ireland, lack of clothing, especially warm and clean clothing, presented a further problem for the poor. In March 1847, he arranged for a cargo of clothing to be sent to Belmullet.
Strzelecki was also concerned with the distances people had to travel in order to obtain relief. In 1838, when the Poor Law was introduced and the country was being divided 130 unions, it had been decided to make unions in the west larger than elsewhere, to reflect population density. The five unions in County Mayo – Ballina, Ballinrobe, Castlebar, Swineford and Westport - were particularly vast. As the Famine progressed, the distances involved in obtaining relief became a further burden on the poor: the distance from Binghamstown on the Mullet Peninsula to the Ballina workhouse, for example, being 42 English miles.
Regardless of the bad weather and poor infrastructure, by 1 March Strzelecki had provided relief in 65 localities, including 30 bales of clothing, 1,020 bags of rice and 1,905 barrels of Indian meal. To ensure efficient and prompt distribution, he had employed two constables as his assistants, informing the London committee that the expense was ‘unavoidable’. By 1 April 1847, Strzelecki had spent £2,953 in County Mayo compared with £1,740 for County Donegal, and £1,193 in County Sligo, and this amount increased as public works started to close. Even at this early stage, government officials were unequivocal about their debt to the Strzelecki and the British Relief Association. In the Westport Union, an estimated 8,000 persons were being fed weekly from Association’ grants, and this was expected to triple. The Poor Law Officer, informed Strzelecki that:
"To them [the BRA] this union owes a debt of gratitude, for this as well as the many grants made to them during the last three months; and to you I am personally under great obligation, for putting at my disposal so effective a stimulant to the several Committees to commence the new system of relief. Pray convey my acknowledgement to your truly benevolent Association."
Working so closely with the poor did take its toll on Strzelecki’s health and he contracted typhoid fever. Although he survived, he never returned to full health.
It was not only the poor in County Mayo who were relying on grants from Strzelecki. Within weeks of being formed, the Association had received applications from all parts of Ireland, including one made on behalf of the Claddagh fishermen by the Society of Friends, Daniel O’Connell on behalf of the parish priest of the small village of Tracton in Cork, Sir Robert Ferguson, MP for Derry, on behalf of the people of the north, and several ones from the Dublin Ladies’ Committee, who were providing clothing to all parts of Ireland.
To cope with what was clearly a nationwide crisis, the Association appointed more agents to travel to Ireland, while making Strzelecki their Executive Director. The first of these volunteers was Lord Robert Clinton who was put in charge of counties Galway, Clare, Limerick and Kerry. A few weeks later, he was joined by Lord James Butler. All of the agents offered their services gratuitously.
In mid-March, the writer Matthew Higgins offered the Association his services specifically for the purpose of proceeding to Belmullet, an area which was gaining the same grim notoriety as Skibbereen in the British press, largely through the appeals of Strzelecki.
Higgins’s family was landed gentry from Benown Castle, County Meath. He was known in the London press by his various pen names, particularly Jacob Omnium (or JO). Writing in this capacity, he had been critical of the handling of relief to Ireland. Before travelling to Ireland, Higgins was advised by the British Relief Association:
"The experience of the Count Strzelecki will be most useful to you, and he has therefore been requested to furnish you with all the information in his power, as to the districts adjacent to Belmullet, and, if possible, to communicate with you personally."
Despite having written about the Famine in Ireland, when Higgins arrived in Belmullet he was shocked by what he witnessed: ‘The streets are full of people in a dying state; at every corner one hears horrible accounts of bodies found in ditches and on dung heaps’. He believed that the local deaths and disease, ‘equal the worst details from Skibbereen’. Like Strzelecki, Higgins was particularly touched by the plight of the children:
"I cannot express to you how painful it is to witness the wretched children, actually expiring in the streets, and to be debarred from assisting them; but if I were to do so once, I could not walk about the town."
Higgins immediately arranged for food and clothing to be provided gratuitously in the remote coastal districts of Ballyglass, Dulock, Tullaghan and Berwick. In doing so, he was contravening his instructions, but he justified his action on the grounds that, ‘the destitution of the people in these districts is so utter, that I feel I am but acting as you would wish’.
Higgins quickly realized that the people required more than just food and clothing. Wherever he went there were dead bodies, putrefying because their relatives could not afford to bury them. He arranged for numerous coffins to be made, but on one occasion purchased two coffins from his own money, for a woman whose children had died. No official records of mortality were kept, although some local reports were made, albeit unsystematically. In the week ending 28 February 1847, for example, 13 deaths from starvation were reported in County Mayo by local constabulary officers. Eye-witness reports from Higgins and Strzelecki regarding mortality, however, suggest that the official statistics were gross under-estimates.
Higgins was based in Letterbrick, a small coastal town. The town had no dispensary and was 31 miles away from the nearest workhouse. He was critical of the three local Protestant clergymen, claiming, ‘one is insane; the other two are not on speaking terms and will not “act” together in any way’. In contrast, the three Catholic clergy were ‘good, simple men – poor, ignorant and possessing little influence over their flocks’. Although the local soup kitchen had been given money by Strzelecki in advance of Higgin’s arrival, no food was being provided because the vicar and the curate had quarreled and, ‘preferred seeing the parishioners starve than make soup for them in concert’. There were only two large resident landlords and Higgins was scathing about the one known as, ‘The Mulligan’, but praised a Mr Black, who had been active in distributing relief. Overall though, landlord apathy meant that the only food available to the people was that provided by the British Relief Association.
Higgins left Belmullet on 4 May. During his short stay, he had helped to establish soup kitchens throughout the district. Despite all that he had done to help the local people, his final letters were dejected in tone. In them, he made a special plea for the district he was leaving, asking that Erris should ‘be made an exception to the general relief measures’. Higgins received neither compensation nor lasting recognition for the time he spent in County Mayo, but, like Strzelecki, he had not only saved lives, but he had given a voice and dignity to people who had been forsaken by their government, their landlords and their ministers.
The role of Strzelecki and his fellow agents was continually adapting to the various changes in government policy. In January 1847, it had been announced that the public works would be closing and that in autumn an extended Poor Law would be made responsible for both ordinary and extraordinary relief. In the intervening summer months, a national network of soup kitchens was to be be opened. In the weeks following this announcement the numbers on the public works actually increased, regardless of low wages and harsh working conditions.
To prevent further increases, the Treasury announced that, on 20 March, the workforce had to be reduced by 20 per cent, regardless of whether or not soup kitchens were operative. This harsh directive left many people without any relief. Encouraged by Strzelecki, the British Relief Association acknowledged the need for additional relief, informing their agents that they could give assistance, ‘with more than the previous freedom to whatever district they find to be under severe pressure’.
Regardless of difficulties during the transition period, the opening of soup kitchens in 1847 was generally successful. Despite some reports of watery soup of low nutritional quality, the move from the public works to the soup kitchens, proved beneficial. Strzelecki, writing from Westport, reported:
"The great recommendation of the present system, independently of its comparative merits, is, that besides being more systematic, and capable of contracting and extending its issues from fortnight to fortnight, and thus of adjusting and adapting itself to circumstances, it is more effective; for, since it came into operation, the afflicting and heart-rending crowds of destitutes have disappeared, and Westport, the receptacle of misery, assumes daily a more cheering aspect."
When the soup kitchens closed in August, the Poor Law was to become responsible for all government relief in Ireland. In recognition of the unwieldy size of the five Poor Law Unions in County Mayo, four new ones unions were created – in Belmullet, Claremorris, Killala and Newport. Their formation was indicative of the limitations of the previous system to cope with the distress. At this stage, most charities had ceased to operate as their funds were exhausted. There was also a mistaken belief that the Famine was over. The exceptions to this were the Society of Friends and the British Relief Association.
Following the move to Poor Law relief, the role of Strzelecki changed. He was now the only agent to remain in Ireland on behalf of the Association and was solely in charge of distributing their residual funds. In this capacity, he worked closely with the newly-appointed Poor Law Inspectors and used the funds of the Association to support the 22 Poor Law Unions that had been officially declared ‘distressed’. The Association realized that the change-over to Poor Law relief in the autumn of 1847 would create some hardships, had offered Strzlecki’s services on the grounds that, ‘the transition from the one system to the other, it was obvious, would be attended with considerable difficulty, out of which much additional pressure of a temporary character might probably arise’.
To fulfill this new role, Strzelecki relocated to Dublin to facilitate his relationship with the restructured Irish Poor Law Commission. Again, therefore, private charity was being called on to provide essential relief when the government was failing to do so.
Even when the extended Poor Law was fully operational, it still proved unable to cope with the demands placed on it. In County Mayo and elsewhere, the condition of the poor deteriorated further. James Hack Tuke, a Quaker from Yorkshire who had first travelled to Erris at the end of 1846, returned in the autumn of 1847. His account of what he witnessed was harrowing:
"Ten thousand people within forty-eight hours journey of the metropolis of the world, living, or rather starving, upon turnip-tops, sand-eels, and sea-weed; a diet which no one in England would consider fit for the meanest animal he keeps."
Regardless of his earlier experiences, his reports reveal horror at the scenes he witnessed: ‘Human wretchedness seems concentrated in Erris; the culminating point of man’s physical degradation seems to have been reached in the Mullet’. Tuke described people who were still alive, as ‘living skeletons’.
The inadequacies of Poor Law relief meant that, as in the preceding months, Strzelecki was called on to provide assistance in the western unions. In 1848, the geographic impact of the distress was changing, with it becoming mostly confined to the unions of Ballina, Belmullet, Castlebar, Ballinrobe, Westport and Clifden. The distress was exacerbated by the spread of typhus fever and by the inclement weather.
In 1848, Strzelecki reported that the condition of the poor in parts of Connaught and Munster was worse than in the previous two years. Strzelecki estimated that, by this stage, 99,000 holders of land had been evicted and were homeless. Many did not want to take shelter in the workhouse due to ‘domestic separation’, that is the separation of families, therefore they took outdoor relief, even though they had no home. Relief from the British Relief Association was called on repeatedly to fill this starvation gap. In spring 1848, Poor Law Inspector Bourke found the state of fishermen in Boffin Island to be ‘desperate’. He appealed to Strzelecki for biscuit on their behalf, which was immediately granted. Bourke reported that ‘this benevolence has been attended with the best results’. Regardless of assistance that he was giving, the usually moderate Strzelecki reported that, ‘The Inspectors of Ballina and Belmullet write to me that, notwithstanding all their efforts, this district is a disgrace to any civilized country’.
An abiding concern of Strzelecki was with children and how they were faring as the family unit and other social structures broke down. In addition to providing financial support to the newly-extended Poor Law, therefore, Strzelecki continued with his personal scheme of giving direct relief to the children. As he witnessed the changes in relief provision throughout 1847, Strzelecki had become convinced that separate provision needed to be made for children, who in the ‘general run and scramble for food have been left behind’. He further believed that children, especially young girls, needed protection ‘from the afflicting scenes in which they have been partly spectators, party actors’.
In the spring of 1847, Strzelecki had pioneered a system of feeding schoolchildren in the Westport Union. He had placed 600 girls under the care of the Sisters of Charity, 700 boys under the local Catholic Dean, and 160 children in the local Protestant schools in Westport and Louisburg under the protection of their ministers, and through his scheme had given each child clothing and one meal a day, at a daily cost of one-third of a penny. The children helped were between 5 and 14 years of age. Before being allowed a meal, they were required to wash their face and hands, and to comb their hair. Apart from the benefits to the children, the parents also benefitted from not having to share their scant resources.
The scheme was widely praised, the local Board of Guardians, under the chairmanship of Lord Sligo passing a vote of thanks to the Association and to Strzelecki on behalf of the children, for, ‘not alone relieving their physical wants, but extending the blessings of education, so necessary for the well-being of society’. His efforts were also applauded in the local press, the Tyrawly Herald saying of the children: ‘Their pure hearts should glow with gratitude at this fresh proof of the concern entertained for their comforts by their generous benefactors’.
The success of the scheme encouraged Strzelecki to ask the committee in London if he could extend his scheme to other unions. His appeals became more urgent with the transfer to the new Poor Law. In October 1847 he urged the committee in London to consider his request, saying he feared for poor children and ‘the actual and future effects which the physical and moral degradation to which they are exposed, through hunger and nakedness, has and will have on the country’. With the approval of the Treasury, in the winter of 1847, the scheme was extended to the 22 ‘distressed unions’. As a result, for almost nine months, over 200,000 children received free rations of food daily and appropriate clothing. All of the unions in County Mayo benefitted from this scheme.
In anticipation that the funding of the Association would finally dry up in summer 1848, Strzelecki made a personal request that the government continue the work in the schools until harvest. The Prime Minister agreed, issuing a Memorandum saying that feeding school-children should continue, paid for by the Treasury. The Treasury, however, refused to do so, on the grounds that this fell outside the scope of government relief provision. Consequently, Strzelecki’s attempts to have the government finance the scheme failed and so all relief to schools was to end in August 1848. At this stage, the number of children in County Mayo who were availing of the relief was:
Prof. Christine Kinealy
In total, approximately 60,000 local children had been fed in this way.
In July 1848, the British Relief Association formally suspended its work in Ireland due to its funds being exhausted. Since October 1847, they had provided £150,000 to supplement the Poor Law, with almost £46,000 having been spent in June alone. Importantly also, they had, at the urging of Strzelecki, fed the children of the poor. The ending of the involvement of Strzelecki and the British Relief Association was lamented by many. The Poor Law Commissioners, whose work after 1847 would not have been possible without the financial support of the Association, keenly felt the loss. The departure of Strzelecki was particularly felt, the Poor Law Commissioners informing him:
"It must be a source of true and reined pleasure to your benevolent mind, to know that your exertions on behalf of the poor children have been attended with even more than that measure of success which could have been anticipated."
Before he left Dublin, the Viceroy, landlords and clergy thanked him with a public address, and the 40 Poor Law officers with whom he had worked presented him with a piece of silver plate, on which their names were engraved.
Praise for Strzelecki from the committee in London, on whose behalf he had worked so tirelessly in Ireland, were fulsome. They acknowledged that his duties had required ‘great labour and anxiety, and a considerable degree of personable risk’. Jones-Loyd, Chairman of the Association and a long-standing friend of Strzelecki, wrote a personal letter, which he commenced by saying, ‘I feel it difficult to confine myself to the cold and measured language of official form’, adding, ‘You have indeed established the strongest claim upon the gratitude of the country which you have adopted’.
Strzelecki was presented by the Association with a silver tea service, contained in two rosewood chests, upon which the names of the committee appeared. The Polish Count had, it seemed achieved an impossible feat: being equally admired in both Ireland and England for his work during the Irish Famine.
In 1848, it was announced, without little fanfare, that Trevelyan, in addition to his usual salary, had received a bonus of £2,500 for his ‘extraordinary labours during that trying time’. He was also knighted. Trevelyan had, on this occasion, informed the Prime Minister that, ‘he could not conceive how he had continued to outlive the extreme mental and bodily exertion of that crisis’. When Strzelecki was honoured some months later by being made a first Civil Companion of the Bath, the Morning Chronicle noted:
"The labour, the ability and the deserts of Count Strzelecki were, to say the least, in no degree inferior to those of Mr Trevelyan. Moreover, they were voluntary and gratuitous, and they involved much personal danger and discomfort".
For them, the recognition had come ‘somewhat tardily’.
In 1849, regardless of extreme suffering in the west of Ireland, the government was unwilling to commit further Treasury funds to alleviate the situation. Instead, they sought to re-activate the role of private charity. To encourage charitable interventions, a private subscription was opened by the government with MPs being asked to donate £100, while the Queen gave £500.
Strzelecki agreed to return to Ireland to oversee the distribution of these funds, which amounted to £6,400. It was a pitifully small amount in light of the misery in Ireland. Moreover, when Strzelecki arrived in the west of the country he was dismayed by what he found as, ‘the distress of these ill-fated districts presented in June a character of suffering greatly exceeded in severity that which I witnessed there in the fatal winter of 1846-‘47’. He reported that those on outdoor relief provided by the Poor Law were, ‘in a state of emaciation, sickness and nudity hardly credible, crowding together and crouching under heaps of rotten straw of their unroofed cabins, under bridges, burrowing on the roadside, or in the ditches of the cold and wet bogs’.
Strzelecki spent four months in Ireland, travelling 2,700 miles to help those whom the Poor Law did not reach. While there, he again demonstrated his concern for the people of Mayo, donating £300-30s to the Westport Industrial Society, which was providing local employment at ‘fair wages’. Strzelecki was praised in the local press, Thomas O’ Dowd, the Catholic curate averring that the Polish Count, ‘may be truly styled one of the best and most disinterested friends of the Irish poor’.
In the same year, Strzelecki gave evidence before a select committee on the Poor Laws. In his responses he was unequivocal that, ‘the calamity which has befallen to Ireland is an Imperial calamity’. He believed it was beyond the powers of either local powers or the Poor Law to alleviate it. Moreover, in his opinion, ‘people in the British Empire, as long as that empire possesses any means, should not be allowed to die from starvation’.
Sir Paul E. Strzelecki
When the questioner suggested that the money spent in Ireland on relief had been, ‘wasting funds upon the mere support of the people’, Strzelecki responded that, ‘You cannot reason in an abstract way when you see men dying in the streets’, adding, ‘the first thing you have to do is to keep the soul and body together of the starving; there is justice and humanity concerned in it’. Overall, Strzelecki’s responses to the grilling by the select committee highlighted the fact that the view of the Famine in London, compared with the reality of the Famine in areas such as County Mayo, was based on more than simply geographical distance.
Strzelecki returned to Ireland in 1850, seemingly, acting on his own initiative, a London paper noting, ‘The Count de Streletzski [sic] arrived in Limerick last week, upon his benevolent mission for the relief of the Irish poor’. At this stage, famine was still raging in parts of the west, especially County Clare, but, for the most part, Ireland had been left to its own resources. This visit marked the end of Strzelecki’s direct association with the Irish Famine.
Despite the work of the British Relief Association and other relief agencies who worked in County Mayo during the Famine, the suffering of the poor was unimaginable. As Strzelecki had said when first arriving in Westport, no pen could describe adequately the suffering. Despite his best efforts, people continued to suffer. Between 1845 and 1851 the population of Mayo fell by almost 30 per cent from a combination of death and emigration. Moreover, it marked the start of decades of demographic decline. The reduction in population, however, provided only one measure of the human cost of a series of inadequate and often inappropriate official relief measures.
When his work with the poor ended in Ireland, Strzelecki returned to London where he moved within British high society. He continued to provide service to the poor and distressed, however, serving on various emigration committees and travelling to the Crimea, during the war, to give support to his friend, Florence Nightingale.
Strzelecki received multiple awards and distinctions during the remainder of his life. These included receiving an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law from the University of Oxford in 1860. In 1869, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in honour of his explorations in Australasia. He was also honoured further afield with various geographical features being named after him in Canada, Tasmania and Australia, and a statue being erected to him in New South Wales.
In 1873, Strzelecki died at his home in Saville-Row London. He was aged 77. His death was noted in newspapers in Britain, Poland and Australia, but passed with little notice in Ireland. Yet, according to an early historian of the Famine, William O’Brien, Strzelecki was not forgotten in Ireland, and within the west, ‘the name of this benevolent stranger was then, and for long afterwards, a familiar one if not a household word, in the homes of the suffering poor’.
Strzelecki was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London. In 1943, on the seventieth anniversary of his death, a memorial plaque was placed at his grave by the Australian and Polish governments, to honour him as an explorer. In 1997, his remains were transferred to his birth-place, Poznań.
In monetary terms, the British Relief Association was the charitable organization that raised the largest amount of money for Ireland during the Famine. What this meant in terms of saving lives, and providing comfort to a desperate people, cannot be numerically measured. The distribution of charitable donations was only possible due to the selfless sacrifices of numerous, now largely forgotten, individuals. Paul de Strzelecki was one of the most remarkable members of this elite group.
Today, he is largely forgotten in Ireland, but without his generous interventions and personal sacrifices on behalf of the people of County Mayo, especially the children, the loss of live during the Great Famine would have been even higher.
Professor Christine Kinealy
Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute, Quinnipiac University
Strzelecki deserves a monument - radio interview with Prof. Christine Kinealy
Puls Polonii - "Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland" a review by Felix Molski
Strzelecki - Character Revealing Discoveries by Felix Molski
About the book:
MAYO. History & Society
944 pages, 30 figures, 99 plates
ISBN: 978 0 906602 683