For centuries Bosnia and Herzegovina and specially Sarajevo were favored destinations for various missionaries and some of them left a permanent imprint on the historical backdrop of the city. It is out of appreciation to her altruistic and educational work that, even right up until today, Sarajevo recollects the English Protestant, Adeline Paulina Irby, better known as Miss Irby.
Adeline was born on 19 December 1831 in Great Britain. She came from a family of respectable bankers on her mother’s side, and her father, Frederick Paul Irby, was a Navy admiral. After her parents died, Adeline Paulina Irby went to London where she was educated in elite schools. She was initially interested in languages and later on in education, which ultimately determined her future way and the future of Bosnia, where she lived until she died.
After completing school in 1859 she left on an exploratory adventure through Eastern Europe with a school companion, Georgina Mackenzie. They originated from Vienna, travelled through Bratislava, stayed for some time on the Tatra Mountains, and then went to Cracow, just to be accused by the Austrian authorities that they are suspected Russian spies and suporters of Pan-Slavism movement. Thanks to good connections with British autorities, they were soon released. After their arrival to London, they published their first book – Across the Carpathians.
In 1861 they started their three-year-travel through out the Balkan Peninsula and published a much apprised book called “ Travels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey-in-Europe” and upon return to the UK, they gave lectures and published papers on these Slav groups: Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, etc. Both books were published anonymously.
During the time of the Serbo-Turkish War (1875 – 1878), Adeline Irby founded a foundation in London that took care of refugees and orphans who were coming from Bosnia to Slavonia. She built orphanages, settlements for the homeless, provided medicine for the ill and wounded civilians and soldiers. It is estimated that she helped over 40.000 people in Sarajevo, Dalmatia and Slavonia during that period of time.
Irby followed her father’s altruistic steps, who was promoted by Queen Victoria to Rear-Admiral in the Navy after suppressing the slave trade in Africa.
She focused her aid and humanitarian work on helping the Orthodox Serbs who were living under Ottoman rule. The Christians called her “noble Miss Irby”, and she received numerous honors from Serbian and Montenegrin rulers. Although she predominantly supported the Serbian Orthodox population during her work, in her travel writings she often expressed sympathy towards the Muslim-Bosniaks, whom she considered to be the true descendants of the medieval Bosnian aristocracy.
Someone once said to her: “History will surely record and reward your good deeds and efforts to help the Serbs.“ Adelina laughed and said, ” Support for those who are weaker than you is sacred. The truth is sacred. Mathematics is sacred. History is not sacred because it is full of lies as the people who write it. Thank you very much! What I do here is enough for me.”
When she and Georgina Mackenzie arrived in Sarajevo they managed to get permission from the Turkish authorities to open a women’s school in Sarajevo. So in 1866 they opened a school for Christian girls. Although the school was open to all the girls, only Christian girls had enrolled. After the school was just opened, the entire Sarajevo was against Miss Irby. She was a stranger, a protestant woman and wanted to change the girls. The only support at that time Miss Irby got was from Staka Skenderova, the first Bosnian Serb teacher, who established the first girl’s school in Sarajevo, and which at that point was already closed, so Staka worked at Irby’s school. Over the time Miss Irby and Staka became very close friends and Miss Irby organized and paid for Staka’s funeral after her tragical death.
When the first turbulences passed and when everyone accepted the school, Miss Irby opened the school doors for the poorest. Since 1875 schools have been a shelter most for children without parental care.
Miss Irby’s choice for Bosnia was because there was so little missionary activity in that part of the Balkans. So she raised money from family and friends and opened a school in Sarajevo.
“When I came to Bosnia, I met a wonderful and benevolent people, whose misery awakened in me feelings of compassion, and therefore I decided to dedicate my whole life to them to cure their suffering and reduce the misery”, said Miss Irby in 1806.
How much this school meant for girls without parental care is best shown by a letter from one of them: “It is hard to say goodbye to this lovely house where I did not know about sorrow or misery. I was happy. I have Father in heaven and my mother is Noble. I’m losing everything now, but my dear Father in heaven, whom I always pray for and hope to be there forever, will be my guardian. Today I can see that I am am poor while leaving my beloved benefactor. The Noble has done more good for me and saw more evil being done to me, than my own mother, who I do not even remember. May the dear Lord bless her with a long life, I will pray for that and will never forget her until I die. I tell you again, my dear friend, I leave this house with sorrow in my heart, and it is difficult for me to think that I will never see my good and beloved Nobel again. ”
Miss Irby died in Sarajevo at the age of 80 on 15. September 1911. On that day flags were lowered to half-mast and Orthodox Serbs in Sarajevo hung black flags and sheets from their balconies.
Despite the fact that she had requested a modest funeral, thousands of students, teachers, citizens as well as diplomats and representatives of the local government came to pay their last respects to this humanitarian.
She left behind countless good deeds and millions of pounds had been spent on helping the poor. She left all of her possessions in Bosnia to the Sarajevo-based Serbian Cultural Society Prosvjeta and the Association of Serbian Women, so that she could help to educate Serbian orphans even after her death.
Miss Irby was first buried in the Protestant cemetery on Koševsko brdo. Her grave was later relocated to Old Orthodox cemetery in Ciglane, near her friend Staka Skenderova.
After Miss Irby’s death, Ivo Andrić, a writer and Nobel Prize winner, wrote: “We will never be able to fully learn neither to fully evaluate what that woman has done for Bosnia.”
As an indication of the appreciation Sarajevans had for her philanthropic work, one of the central city streets has born the name “Mis Irbina” throughout the decades.
Irma Antonia Plavčić