Paul Edmund Strzelecki, one of the heroes of the Great Irish Famine, brought starving children into the foreground of relief measures. Filled with empathy for their plight, he devised an innovative system of feeding and clothing children through schools.
When his plan was applied to the 27 Irish Unions in which starvation was most severe, the scheme, at its peak, fed and clothed 201,427 children of all religious persuasions every day.
Strzelecki a scientist and world explorer, arrived in England in 1845 to publish A Physical Description of NSW and Van Diemen’s Land based on four years of pioneering geological and mineralogical research of south-eastern Australia, for which he crossed over 11,000 km of rugged territory and inhospitable climate on foot while laden with scientific instruments.
With the assistance of his Aboriginal guides, Paul Edmund peacefully and respectfully entered tribal territories by permission, not force.
Shortly after Strzelecki’s book was published, news of the Great Hunger in Ireland began to break out. Paul Edmund, who had experienced 22 days of starvation while exploring Gippsland in 1840, was imbued with a sense of duty.
He volunteered his time and talent – free of charge and at his own expense – to the British Relief Association (B.R.A.), a private charity that had recently been established by a group of English nobles to help those in great need in Ireland and Scotland.
Strzelecki’s assistance was welcomed and, on the 22nd of January, 1847, the Association assigned him to provide relief to the Counties of Donegal, Mayo and Sligo. Strzelecki wasted no time; he arrived in Dublin four days later.
Fit and accustomed to travelling in difficult circumstances, on foot if necessary Strzelecki obtained firsthand knowledge throughout the rural and settled districts of the Counties for which he was responsible to provide help. What he discovered tore at his heartstrings.
During his first six months, he wrote 15 reports using the most powerful prose to describe what he had witnessed. Utter destitution and widespread mortality from starvation and disease were so grave that there was an insufficiency of coffins for those who had died.
Traumatic memories of being orphaned awoke when he witnessed the plight of the children. His father had died when he was four and his mother when he was ten.
At Westport, on the 29th of January, 1847, Strzelecki wrote:
Initially, as an agent of the B.R.A., Strzelecki was responsible for establishing depots from which food, provisions and clothing were gratuitously distributed to the destitute and starving. Paul Edmund had noted the dispersed nature of the population, so he established substations to make sure that the destitute in his Counties did not have too far to travel to obtain assistance.
Alert to the waste and corruption that sometimes accompanied „relief”, Strzelecki was assiduous with the resources for which he was responsible.
Areas with honest and efficient administrators were given priority, and rigorous control procedures were put in place. Only about 2% of BRA funds were absorbed by administrative costs a contrast to the 30% or so expended by many major charities today.
Strzelecki contracted typhus in March 1847, in the course of undertaking his charitable work. Although he continued to suffer ill effects for the rest of his life, his humanitarian efforts in Ireland continued unabated. He closely monitored conditions within his districts.
Whenever the British Government made changes to Official Relief, such as when it closed Public Works and condemned to starvation those arbitrarily laid off, Strzelecki immediately doubled the Grants in his districts to help those affected by the Government’s heartlessness.
Having installed and organised depots and procedures for the efficient distribution of food, clothing and grants to aid the destitute and starving adults, Strzelecki turned his attention to the plight of the children, whose situation had been tearing at his heartstrings.
As an agent of the BRA, he had access to all the food and clothing needed; but how could it be delivered effectively to the children? Strzelecki’s innovative plan was simple and revolutionary. Clothing and daily food rations could be provided to children attending schools of all religious persuasions!
The infrastructure and staff already existed; all that was needed was the approval of school authorities.
Continuation of part 2 on the next page _can be found here_