What do Mt Kosciuszko and the Great Irish Famine have in common? The answer is Paul Edmund Strzelecki.
Most of you will have heard of the Great Irish Famine, or An Gorta Mór. In the early 19th century about 40% of the population of Ireland depended on the potato for their main, or only, source of food. In 1845 the potato blight destroyed the crop, turning the potatoes into a blackened, foul-smelling and inedible mush. But this was only the beginning. The blight continued until 1852, with the worst years being 1846-49. Over a million people died and an even larger number emigrated, resulting in a population drop of 20-25%. Even today the population of Ireland still hasn't returned to its pre-Famine levels.
The British government's reaction to the blight did little to alleviate the starvation and death of the population. In fact Charles Trevelyn, a British civil servant who was responsible for the distribution of food relief, believed that that "the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson". The result was that the government and was slow to distribute aid or food, believing in free markets and non-intervention.
But what does this all have to do with Strzelecki? Paul (or Pawel) Edmund Strzelecki was born in Poland in 1796 to a noble family. He left that country about 1829 and travelled around the world exploring the geology and mineralogy of the places that he visited. During the four years that he spent exploring Australia he discovered and climbed the country's tallest mountain, naming it Mt Kosciuszko after the Polish democratic leader, Tadeusz Kosciuszko.
Leaving Australia in 1843 he travelled across Asia to England. There, in 1847, a group of upper-class men formed the British Relief Association, a charity set up to raise and distribute money to help Ireland and Scotland (which was also suffering from the potato blight). They raised money throughout England, America and Australia. Amongst the contributors were Queen Victoria and other members of British and European royal families, the East India Company, former prime minister Sir Robert Peel, and US President Polk and congressman Abraham Lincoln.
The Association sent Strzelecki to Ireland to administer relief in the Counties of Donegal, Sligo and Mayo. Strzelecki toured these regions to see the situation for himself and was horrified.
His plan to address the suffering was revolutionary. Instead of providing relief to the parents, he decided to focus on the children. In 1831 Ireland had introduced a system of National schools, and even though attendance was not compulsory, by the time of the Famine there were over 4000 schools in Ireland, teaching nearly half a million pupils. At the schools, children were clothed and given one meal each day. Before each child was fed they had to wash their hands and face and comb their hair.
This system worked in two ways. Firstly, the children had food and did not need to resort to going to the Workhouse. The Workhouses did not have good hygiene procedures and suffered high rates of typhus and dysentery, and consequently, high rates of death. It also freed the parents from worrying about their children and numerous independent volunteers who were implementing the scheme reported that the parents were now able to seek their own subsistence, and that they were doing just that, which also kept them out of the workhouse.
It is estimated that the school scheme saved more than 200,000 children from starvation, and an unknown number of parents. So if you had ancestors from Donegal, Mayo or Sligo who survived the Famine, you might have Paul Strzelecki to thank.