The life of Paul Strzelecki, a Polish explorer who saved over 200,000 children during the Great Irish Famine is being honored in a new exhibition in Dublin.
Described as “one of the great humanitarians of the nineteenth century,” the exhibition by the Polish Embassy in Dublin explores Strzelecki’s fascinating life and unique contribution helping starving Irish people during the Great Famine.
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Running until the end of August, “A Forgotten Polish Hero of the Great Irish Famine: Paul Strzelecki’s Struggle to Save Thousands," contains content by experts in the field, along with rarely-seen images of the Famine relief efforts from collections in Ireland, Britain, Australia and the United States.
Born in 1797 near Poznań, western Poland, Strzelecki spent the 1830s traveling the world, including Australia, collecting specimens in his professional capacity as a geologist.
In 1839 he set out on an expedition into the Australian Alps and explored the Snowy Mountains. The following year he climbed the highest peak on mainland Australia and named it Mount Kosciuszko, to honor Tadeusz Kościuszko, one of the national heroes of Poland and a hero of the American Revolutionary War.
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Strzelecki then moved to England and by 1845 had become a naturalized British subject.
That year the Great Irish Famine struck after the potato crop failed due to potato blight, a disease that destroyed the potato plants. With a large part of the Irish population reliant on potatoes for food, many families were left starving, contributing to the death of one million people.
In January 1847, a group of English banking leaders combined to raise funds for famine relief via a private charity named the “British Relief Association” and entrusted Strzelecki to dispense them.
Throughout that year, Strzelecki worked mainly in the northwestern counties of Sligo, Donegal, and Mayo, reporting conditions worse than he could have imagined, beyond all “exaggeration and misrepresentation."
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1847 is often referred to as “Black 47” for being the deadliest year of the Great Irish famine of 1845-1949.
To help starving children, Strzelecki decided the best way to feed them rye bread through daily food rations in schools.
At the scheme’s height, it is estimated up to 200,000 children had benefitted, and without that help, many of them would have died.
Although contracting famine fever he continued his work even as funds diminished and also helped impoverished Irish families to seek new lives in Australia.
In recent years, he has had plaques erected in his honor in Dublin and Clifden.
The exhibition was officially opened last week by Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins who noted Strzelecki’s contribution to helping the victims of the famine.
“We are recognizing a special friend of the Irish, Paul Strzelecki, one of the great Polish humanitarians of the nineteenth century,” he said.
“Ireland and Poland have much in common. Our shared history is enriched by deep economic, cultural and personal ties, as well as our shared membership of the European Union.
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"Contemporary Irish-Polish relations are dynamic and growing, bolstered in no small part by the vibrant Polish community in Ireland, men and women who have chosen to make Ireland their home and who, may I acknowledge, are making such a vital contribution to our society."
The exhibition runs until August 30. After that, it will embark on a tour of Ireland.
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