Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

Miss Irby: The good kind of religious extremist

This weekend only, buy the kindle version of Meeting Miss Irby for only $2.99 or the Nook version for 99¢. Check out the first two chapters or a short article on her life.

Last year, on this day, a diverse crowd of Sarajevans gathered to celebrate the life of Adeline Paulina Irby on the 100th anniversary of her death. In honor of this occasion, I thought I would repost an excerpt of the speech I gave a year ago.


Thank you Alen and Mirela for those songs. I know that those words had deep meaning for both Miss Irby and for the children in her school.

One of those children, Vuka, lost both of her parents during the uprising of 1875-79 and was left alone, at only 7-years-old. She had no one turn to so she wandered about in the Dinara mountains living off of what she could find. She had nothing to eat. She sought shelter among the Dinara caves. But the limestone rock could not shelter her from hunger. When at last someone stumbled upon her she was near death, she was exhausted, unable to speak. She was brought down into Dalmatia and eventually to Miss Irby in Knin. There was no way that she would have lasted another week—she was skin and bones; her eyes were deep dark trenches in her head. Little by little, Miss Irby nursed Vuka back to health. Eventually she was strong enough to join in playing with the 20 other kids at the orphanage. All who had been saved from certain death.

There, at Miss Irby’s orphanage, Vuka learned the song that was just sung for us. “Vječna stijeno, samo ti pružaš zaklon sigurni.” (Rock of ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee)

For Miss Irby, and for the children in her orphanage and school, those songs were more than simple poetry. They reminded them of the helplessness of their past—the cold dark caves of the Dinara mountains. They reminded them of HOPE for the future.

This book that I am presenting to you this evening is a hopeful book. Here, in Miss Irby, we have a wonderfully positive story from the history of Bosnia and Hercegovina. A story that is full of faith, hope, and love.

But the story almost did not happen. When the uprising began in 1875, Miss Irby, who had been living in Sarajevo for 4 years, returned to England to raise money for refugee work. There, in the comforts of her home country, she began to have second-thoughts. She delayed her return. She almost decided to stay.

Who could blame her? It is not every person who goes headlong into the discomforts of a warzone. But, had she stayed in England, what would have happened to Vuka?

She chose to return. Why? Why would someone give up what we all desire to have—wealth, comfort, and privilege?

This one question—WHY— was what drove me in my research of Miss Irby’s life. This one question is the reason I wrote this book. And this one question has had the greatest impact on my life.

Why did Adeline leave England? Because of her faith. And not just any faith, but a radical and extreme faith. I know that, in our world today, when the words extreme and religion are placed together, there is fear. In many ways, the world has become afraid of those who take their faith too seriously. But, in Miss Irby, I see a positive religious extremist. Her religion was radical enough that she gave up a life of comfort and privilege to serve others. The more extreme her faith became, the more extreme her love. The more seriously she took her faith, the more diligently she sacrificed herself for others. The more radical she became in her Christian faith, the more patience she expressed to those who were different than her. In our world today, we could use more extreme faith like Miss Irby’s.

It was in the middle of winter during the uprising and Miss Irby was distributing refugee aid from a small town outside of Knin. The town was full of Christian refugees who had fled their homes in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Many of their houses had been burned. They were living in shacks or worse, in caves in the mountains. Into the town came a large group of Muslims from a village across the mountains.  They had traveled 60 km on foot through the snow. One of the workers said to Miss Irby:

“I wouldn’t give them anything. They still have their homes and land. They don’t have needs like we do here.”

Miss Irby turned to him and asked, “Can a Muslim be poor? Can a Muslim be hungry? Then let them come.”

That day, the group returned to their village with money as well as bags of food, clothing, tools, and other necessary supplies.

That kind of extremism needs to be written about. That kind of story needs to be told.  That is the kind of extremist Miss Irby’s story challenges me to be. Extreme Faith. Extreme Hope. Extreme Love.

As the Protestant minister said of her at her graveside 100 years ago:

“The spark of eternal love that God placed upon her soul, became a flame of love towards her neighbor. In spirit, she stands in the middle of this room and yells to us all: ‘Go and do good!’”

Thank you. And may Miss Irby’s life inspire you.



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