Strzelecki: an unlikely candidate for spying

 

Sir, – In an era when conspiracy theories dominate our daily news it is no surprise that we should also find these sometimes applied to the historical past. Unfortunately the claim in An Irishman’s Diary (August 14th) that Count Paul (Pawel) Strzelecki acted as a British spy during the Great Famine falls into this category. There is nothing in the extensive records of the British administration to support such a case.

Instead, Dymphna Mayne Headen, in her self-published book, relies on circumstantial evidence, much of it dependent on a misunderstanding of historical sources. Rather than active military personnel, the temporary poor-law inspectors with whom Strzelecki worked were mostly “half-pay” (or semi-retired) reservists, under civilian and not military authority. Moreover, the meticulously kept and published records of the British Relief Association (whose operation was closely observed by Irish and British reporters) indicate none of the abuses of charitable funds that Headen insinuates.

In any case, Strzelecki makes a highly unlikely candidate for espionage.

Speaking with a heavy Polish accent and with a high public profile, he would have been an obvious intruder at any Irish nationalist meeting: none of the many memoirs of Young Ireland leaders mention him, and he studiously avoided engaging with politics of any kind.

Westport and its environs, where he spent the first half of 1847, was largely free from Young Ireland activity, but even during his period in Dublin in later 1847-1848 there is no evidence that anything except charitable organisation preoccupied him.

There is a longstanding Irish tendency to see the worst in any British intervention in Ireland, and the record of government policy during the Famine does much to justify this.

However, the work of the British Relief Association, and in particular the visionary and self-sacrificing efforts of its leading agent, the Polish emigré Paul Strzelecki (who himself survived a bout of famine fever in 1847), was widely acclaimed across the political spectrum in his own time. The historical record confirms it should remain so. – Yours, etc,

Prof PETER GRAY,

Queen’s University,

Belfast.