Wednesday, September 24, 2014

'...really and truly suffering...': The National Famine Museum, Strokestown

"Our families are really and truly suffering in our presence and we cannot much longer withstand their cries for food. We have no food for them, our potatoes are rotten and we have no grain."
— Famine period petition to their landlord by tenants in the townland of Cloonahee. [1] 

The National Famine Museum is housed in the former stable yards of Strokestown Park House.
Strokestown Park House, the seat of the Pakenham Mahon family from 1653-1979.
The house in its current incarnation dates to the 18th century.
As is often the case with many museums, at first blush the National Famine museum at Strokestown Park House, County Roscommon, is very interesting, but not evocative. There is a sort of sterility to the rooms filled with story boards; however, as you read those story boards and look at the artifacts displayed in the glass cases, the period of An Gorta Mór, the Great Famine, of 1845-52 begins to come to life. What is clear from the displays in the museum, as well as from ancillary records and supplemental reading, is that the situation at Roscommon was a complex one.

On 29 April 1848, The Freeman’s Journal newspaper published an article from the Catholic Bishop of Elphin, George Joseph Plunkett Browne, which sought to bring to light the terrible conditions under which Irish tenants were living, and to lambaste the landlords for their cruel practice of eviction. Special focus was brought to bear on those evicted from Major Denis Mahon's estate of Strokestown. Bishop Browne submitted for publication a listing of the names and locations of just over 3000 people who had been evicted from the Estate to that point in time. [2]

From the Freeman's Journal, the 3006 names submitted
by Bishop Browne.
A small sampling of those named on the list.
Named is the head of the family;
the number indicates how many in the family.

During his tenure at Strokestown, Major Denis Mahon evicted 605 families, comprising 3,006 persons of the 12,000 tenants living within the vicinity of the estate. Among those served with the 'notice to quit' were 84 widows.

Although the Strokestown Estate at 27, 000 acres was a significant one, by the time it passed into his hands, it was plagued by debt, and Major Mahon claimed that he simply did not have the ready money necessary to maintain the estate. Likely acting on the advice of his land agent John Ross Mahon (no relation), the Major decided eviction was the answer.

However, was Denis Mahon simply a brutish landlord? Some cited him as a saviour of sorts, saying he helped some of his starving tenants by aiding them in an escape from the famine by emigration.

“Often [I] heard them express their gratitude and thankfulness to their landlord for enabling them to go [to Canada].”— Thomas Merton, middleman Strokestown, 1848 [3]

In 1847, the year which proved to be the most deadly of the Great Famine, at least 1,431 of those 3,006 evicted by Mahon fled to Canada on famine ships, and it was Denis Mahon who paid their passage. Mahon paid just under £4,000 — quite a heady sum for one who claimed to be broke — for the passage of almost 1,000 of those whom he evicted so that they could leave Ireland.[4] It was said that those travelling from the Mahon estate were better outfitted for the journey than most, carrying food and supplies most others lacked. Also, he paid some of those he evicted £1 or £2 just to get off his land, although that was perhaps an attempt to simply assuage his guilt.[5]

"There are hundreds as yet who survived their expulsion, after seeing their crops carried away from their doors and safely deposited within the landlord's haggard, left to subsist on the precarious alms of their neighbours, roving about as houseless wanderers, without a friend to console, or a resting-place whereon to lay their aching bones.—I am, Sir, your obedient and much obliged, Michael McDermott, P. P., Strokestown." [6]

This poster hanging on one of the museum walls perfectly illustrates
a failure of understanding with respect to the famine by some persons in the privileged classes. 
Absent from the story about Denis Mahon providing 'aid' to those whom he evicted is the fact that in the years prior to the famine the Mahon family had already been evicting tenants. In fact, speaking before the Devon Commission in July of 1844, Major Mahon's brother John admitted that their plan was to evict more tenants in 1846, since a significant number of leases were then due to expire. This would enable them to remove those who farmed potatoes, in favour of creating grass land on which cattle could be grazed, a much more lucrative proposition.

Green space all around at Strokestown Park, as far as the eye can see, serves as an eerie reminder
of the tillage lands that were turned to grazing fields because it was more profitable.
Ultimately all did not end well for the nefarious landlord. As was said in Ireland at the time, 'Filleann an feall ar an bhfeallaire', in English, 'the wrong rebounds on the wrongdoer'. For Major Denis Mahon the wrong definitely rebounded, and he paid with his life for his sins against his tenants. On 2 November 1847, in the dark of night, Denis Mahon was shot to death as he travelled home to Strokestown House from a Board of Guardians meeting. There is debate over whether or not Mahon was the true target of the killers, or if the assassin’s bullets had been intended for his land agent John Ross Mahon. Murder was not a deterrent for the landlords; after the death of Mahon the evictions continued until some 11, 000 persons were removed the estate.

Eviction notice served on Widow Mary Campbell of Curradrehid, 31 October 1849.
If your ancestors may have been among those in County Roscommon who took passage to Canada after being evicted by Major Mahon, then visit the searchable Library and Archives Canada Immigrants at Grosse-Île database to search for those ancestors. In addition to information about those evicted by Mahon, there are over 33,000 records in this database. See this link for a full listing of the records which comprise the Immigrants at Grosse-Île database.


1. Crowley et al, page 625.
2. Bishop Browne's own family connections with respect to the famine were not entirely without fault. Landlords retaliated against Browne by publicizing the fact that his own father Martin Browne was a middleman and the single largest tenant on the estate, whose tillage land was of such a size that he could have aided tenants. 
3. Duffy, page 112.
4. Kissane, page 160. The exact number for whom Denis Mahon paid passage is cited as 872 1/2 persons. The fraction is an indicator that children were included in the count.
5. Duffy, page 115. 
6. Hansard, year 1847.

References for further reading:

Crowley, John, William Smyth J., Michael Murphy, and Charlie Roche. Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, Washington Square, NY: New York UP, 2012.

Duffy, Peter. The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland. New York, NY: Harper, 2007.

Kissane, Noel. The Irish Famine: A Documentary History. Dublin: National Library of Ireland, 1996.

One of the first things you see upon entering the museum is this huge wall hanging of the Mahon family tree.
It struck me as a rather odd place for a point of family pride, but nevertheless I thought you might like to see it,
so I've included it here at the end.

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  1. The Powerscourt poster and quote from the Irish Times also perfectly illustrates the attitude of the then government, unfortunately.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Dara. That is unfortunately too true.

      The man principally responsible for famine relief in Ireland, Charles Edward Trevelyan, posited that the matter of starvation had more to do with Irish behaviour than with crop failure, saying in 1846, “The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”. Even Sir Robert Peel, who appeared to be on the side of the poor, with his repeal of the Corn Laws and work for a programme for relief, famously said of the famine , “There is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable”.

      Shocking indifference that is difficult to understand but still apparent in our world today given some attitudes toward those in parts of the world where famine remains a problem.


  2. Interesting, well researched piece. I was surprised by the evictions of so many widows. The notice for Widow Campbell is quite something. They must have been heartless.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Catherine. It certainly does seem absolutely heartless, but within the context of the times, and the class system, the landlords did what worked best for them.


  3. A very interesting post. I enjoyed your insights into that troubled time/

    1. Thanks for your comments Colleen; always much appreciated. It was indeed a troubled time.


  4. I have never really read about these times - thank you for sharing

    1. Hello 'Paper Roots', and welcome,

      Thanks very much for your comments. It was a very troubling time in Ireland, one of two significant famines — the other in 1740-41 — in addition to many other years of food shortages. I hope this post has given you a window into the subject.



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