Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

A lesson I won’t soon forget

Tonight I will give the following speech to a gathering of the organization Prosvjeta in Sarajevo (in the building pictured to the left). Or at least a version of this speech. I will be speaking in Bosnian.


It is a pleasure to be with you tonight.  I believe that this is a great way to spend my time on the night that Miss Irby died a century ago.

When I first visited Sarajevo, 12 years ago, I never imagined I would be standing before you speaking about this book. I never planned to write a book, but rarely can you see the end of a path when you start walking it.

I came to Sarajevo for the first time in 1999 while living in Croatia. It was a cold, dark winter evening. I thought, “What a nice city to visit?” Then I returned to the coast where I was living. In 2001 I moved back to the States, but I was never far from this region. In 2003 I spent the summer in Sarajevo. My girlfriend came to visit me. I asked her to marry me. She is now my wife. We spent two more summers here—the first time as a newly married couple and the second with two young children. Two years ago we moved here—my wife, our daughter and our son—from Atlanta, Georgia to make a new home in Sarajevo.

Six months before moving to Sarajevo—ten years after my first visit—I heard the name Adeline Paulina Irby for the first time.

I was sitting in the living room of my house in Atlanta that afternoon trying to figure out how I was going to successfully move my family—our children were two-years-old and one-year-old at the time—to Bosnia in just six short months. I was sitting because I could not stand. A few days before I had torn my Achilles tendon playing basketball with some students at the University. That was a big part of my problem. How could I move our family around the world when I couldn’t even walk to the kitchen?

That was what I was thinking when I received an email from a friend living in Sarajevo. He had been reading Noel Malcolm’s Bosnia a Short History and had found the following paragraph:

 … in 1870 Miss Pauline Irby opened a school for girls in Sarajevo, which was financed by an English Christian organization and staffed by Protestant deaconesses from Germany.

I was shocked. For ten years I had traveled to Sarajevo and never heard of another Irby traveling there, especially not an Irby that was still talked about a century later. This one email sent me on a quest that continues to this day, to understand this woman Miss Adeline Paulina Irby.

What I discovered was a story of passion and perseverance, of pain and sacrifice, of love and faith. Miss Irby’s story lifted my eyes up from the overwhelming details I was facing and reminded me of the values that drew me to Sarajevo in the first place. Her challenges made mine seem smaller. It took her two days to get from Bosanski Brod to Sarajevo riding in the springless Austrian post cart. I can drive to the border in a little over three hours. She helped me gain perspective.

Most importantly, though, her story reminded me that a life spent serving yourself will never satisfy. William Gladstone, four-time Prime Minister of Britain, said about her and her friend, Priscilla:

I have never witnessed a nobler or simpler example of entire self-devotion to the cause of good. They have voluntarily sacrificed whatever attractions are found in the gilded saloons of London to devote themselves to unceasing and wearying labor.

In the midst of this hard work, she found happiness.

Miss Irby’s most well-known nickname is Plemenita (The Noble). Rightfully, so. She lived nobely. But she was also called Vesela (Cheerful). The joy that she received from her faith in God she poured out in service to her neighbor, which only increased her joy more. That is a lesson I will not soon forget.

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