Writing about the Polish Count Pawel Strzelecki last May, I called him a "forgotten hero of the Irish Famine". Forgotten may have been overstating it slightly, even then.
In recent years he has been commemorated with a Dublin plaque. And the reason I was writing about him in May was that he was the subject of a fine exhibition at the Royal Irish Academy, promoted by the Polish embassy and opened by President Michael D Higgins.
But was “hero” overstating it too? That’s one of the questions arising from the book The Potato Was Not the Problem – a study of the link between Ireland’s workhouses and the Famine – which I featured here yesterday.
When these top bankers made a worldwide appeal for Famine relief, there were grounds for cynicism
Certainly the author Dymphna Mayne Headen has her doubts about Strzelecki. Because although he was a key figure in the British relief efforts of 1847-48, she suspects he was also playing another role, as a government spy.
Now, even to his many admirers, Strzelecki was a mysterious figure. Born in 1797, he spent most of his life in exile, some of it in Australia where he conducted geological studies and named the mainland's highest mountain after a Polish freedom fighter.
An English clergyman he knew there called him “a most gentlemanly, pleasant companion”, but also wondered whether he was really Polish, or a count, while marvelling at his unlimited resources: “He manages [...] to go whither he wishes, and see what he likes.”
By 1845, Strzelecki was in England, a naturalised citizen. His Catholic background recommended him for the task of distributing aid in Ireland on behalf of the British Relief Association, formed in January 1847. But being led by prominent bankers, including Thomas Baring (whose company was sunk 150 years later by Nick Leeson), that organisation too had its mysteries.
The British banking system was in crisis then, having overlent to speculators buying American wheat after repeal of the corn laws. Many banks failed and the Bank of England itself was in trouble until it suspended the Gold Standard in late 1847 and printed money – quantitative easing 1840s style.
When these top bankers made a worldwide appeal for Famine relief, there were grounds for cynicism. The Young Irelander John Mitchel wrote witheringly years later of how England “sent round the hat all over the globe, asking a penny for the love of God to relieve the poor Irish” and then, “constituting herself the agent of all that charity, took all the profit”.
That may have been unduly harsh. But the £434,784 raised (including most famously $170 from America’s Choctaw nation) was lodged for the short-term in the Bank of England, from where at least some was transferred into other banks.
Strzelecki undoubtedly distributed largescale aid in Ireland, much of it as meals to schoolchildren. It has been estimated he thereby saved 200,000 lives.
But Mayne Headen suggests some of his figures were greatly exaggerated. In Ballinrobe Poor Law Union, for example, he gave the number of children fed as 11,510, whereas the local Relieving Officer listed only 1,610.
Another reason for suspicion about the count’s role, according to her book, is the nature of his staff. He had 52 people working as “assistant temporary inspectors” of the Poor Law Unions – overseers of the workhouses. Of these, 32 were “Army captains, or majors, or officers of the royal navy”.
Decades later, another admirer of Strzelecki, a British admiral, was quoted remembering him as a "very clever, agreeable" man, but also noted he had been "an intimate friend of Lord Palmerston and was supposed to be employed by him in more or less secret investigations".
Palmerston became prime minister in the 1850s. But it’s fair to assume that there had been secret investigations going on here during the Famine years too. The militant Young Irelanders had by then broken with Daniel O’Connell’s repeal movement and were a cause of much official concern before their doomed contribution to Europe’s year of revolutions in 1848.
Henry Grattan Jnr was in no doubt about why so many military men were involved in relief. He told the House of Commons: "A body of officers has been sent over to Ireland to spy out the nakedness of the land, under pretence of distributing Indian meal."
It may be unfair to assume that Count Strzelecki was part of this, or even in charge. But he remained a man of intrigue to the end of his life. He changed his first will at the behest of British prime minister William Gladstone and left most of his money to a still-obscure bank. Another thing he did was instruct that, after his death, all his papers should be destroyed.