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A search is under way for a century-old 'solidarity' book sent from Poland's children to Ireland

The book was a thank you gift after Ireland sent its own version in response to the Września children’s strike of 1901.

A photo of children from Września who took part in the school strike in response to the Polish language being banned.
A photo of children from Września who took part in the school strike in response to the Polish language being banned.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

MOST PEOPLE OUTSIDE of Poland wouldn’t know the story of the Września Children’s Strike against Germanisation at the start of the last century. 

Equally, many Poles who know the story might find it surprising that Ireland has a small footnote in the narrative. 

In the early 1900s, Poland was occupied by three countries – Prussia (Germany), Russia and Austria – which had carved the country into different territories between them.

In instruction schools in the German-controlled area of Poland, students were not allowed to speak their native language unless taking music or religion.

In 1901, the exceptions were scrapped by the German administration – now all subjects were to be in German. 

In the region of Września, a number of students aged from 12 to 13 years old in the Catholic People’s School in Września town protested at the banning of the Polish language for religion classes.

Corporal punishment was dished out. The protesting children were given detention and over the following weeks their parents also became vocal protesters in support of the strike.

Some of the adults involved in the protests were sent to prison by the German administration, which also threatened the students, warning them they would not be allowed to finish school. 

At least two of the children died from beatings. Some parents moved their children to other schools. Local law enforcement were put in charge of the schools to make sure students attended class.

The Września strike ended in 1904 but it inspired other student strike movements around Poland against Germanisation that lasted until 1908.

Irish support

The strikes gained a lot of international attention, including from Irish school students, who were under British rule at the time. 

Students from Monaghan, Louth and Donegal, among others, with the help of their teachers, created a bound-volume of 5,468 signatures with many written in Irish, which researcher Katarzyna Gmerek says might indicate they were collected during Irish classes being held in secret at the time.

In her academic paper ‘Shane Leslie and the Irish support for Language Struggle in Poland (2018)’, Gmerek says the volume was organised and collected by the Irish-born diplomat and home rule advocate Shane Leslie and sent to the Polish Catholic Mission in London. From there, it was then sent onto Poland in 1907. 

It now resides in the Princes Czartoyski Library in Krarkow, bound in a green cover embossed with a golden harp. The first pages comprise an address in Polish, Irish and English which states:

It is with the great sorrow that we hear of the efforts being made to rob you of your land and language. We have seen with joy the heroic defence you have made in your schools and we pray that you may soon enjoy the rights and liberties which we now enjoy and which our fathers fled to the mountains and wood rather than lose. God save Poland.

“It shows we care about similar things,” said Viola Di Bucchianico of Forum Polonia, a Polish-led group that brings together community organisations in Ireland.

She hadn’t heard of the story until she began living in Ireland in the late 2000s. She heard it from a visiting speaker from the Irish Culture Foundation based in Poland and was intrigued by the story.

“How many mysterious stories are there between Poland and Ireland?” Bucchianico asked. “I think we have more in common than we know.”

The Missing Book of Signatures

A particularly intriguing part of the story is a 100-year-old book sent back to Ireland as a thank you from Poland.

In response to Ireland’s original gift, Straż Polska, a local organisation of Polish citizens, collected signatures of Polish children as an act of shared sympathy and gratitude that was completed in 1914.

It was reported at the time to have over 15,000 signatures of Polish children in it and was bound in a cover of metal and wood, embossed with the Polish eagle and illustrated with watercolours. A tri-lingual preface was added, with the line: ‘We wish Ireland liberty and luck.’

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While Gmerek suggests caution in regards to the number of Polish signatures, her research says the existence of the book is beyond doubt, since there are small blurred photographs of it in illustrated journals.

These photos show pages from the book that depict two children dressed in Polish folk costumes, while above them is the Polish Eagle and the Irish Harp.

The book was put on public display in Krakow reportedly in November 1914. It was then to be shipped ‘in a few days’ to Ireland, according to a newspaper article at the time.

It has been missing since. 

1914 was the beginning of World War I and this could have presented difficulties in transporting the book, though it could have possibly have travelled through Catholic Church channels that were considered safe at the time, according to Gmerek.

Her research cannot find any trace of the book travelling anywhere though, and world events at the time might have overshadowed the story surrounding it, making it lost to history.

Gmerek spoke to both Samantha Leslie (granddaughter of Shane Leslie) and Yvonne Kelly (Cultural Heritage Manager of the Castle Leslie Archives) as part of her research, as well as examining other Irish historic resources. Unfortunately she didn’t find anything that resolved the question of the missing book.

Bucchianico, of Forum Polonia, who has also made her own inquiries, says it would be a shame to not know what happened to the book.

That’s the question mark – where could this be?

“Someone somewhere has more knowledge about it than we do – so it’s worth trying,” she says.

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