Many people have heard of the evictions and clearing of tenants during the Great Famine 1845-1849.
Fewer people would perhaps expect that Strokestown Park, a place which has become synonymous with the Famine, would have had similar occurrences. The site where Strokestown Park House now stands has been inhabited since the 16th century, when it was a castle. Between 1600s and 1979, the land was the property of the Pakenham-Mahons. The house in its current form was built by Thomas Mahon in the 1700s. The lands had been rewarded to Thomas’ grandfather as a reward for serving in British army during a colonial campaign.
During the Great Famine, County Roscommon was badly affected by the potato blight. Between 1841 and 1861, ‘the population of Roscommon…[fell] from 253,591 to 157,272’. On the Strokestown estate, an estimated 3,000 tenants were evicted. The landlord at the time, Major Denis Mahon, was an absentee landlord. The manager of the estate evicted these people in Mahon’s name. There are reports that Mahon was deeply uncomfortable with these events, and that this is what led him to initiate and fund the first ‘assisted emigration’ scheme. This plan assisted people with moving from Strokestown to Canada, which in turn led to devastation and death on the journey. Mahon was, of course, unaware of this when he started the scheme.
Evictions were the most common way of getting rid of unwanted tenants. These could be people who were ill, starving, too young, too old or no longer useful, or those who could no longer pay the rent. The latter was the only legal reason somebody could be evicted, but generally it was up to the whims of the landlord. The cabins, huts or cottages that the tenants lived in were often built by their own hands, but they could still be evicted from somewhere they themselves had built. There were, of course, landlords who were sympathetic to the plight of the tenants and went broke as a result of not collecting rents. Unfortunately, thousands of people all over Ireland were still put out into the wilderness, with nowhere to go, in the unforgiving Irish climate.
In November 1847, Denis Mahon was assassinated at the height of the Famine. The assassination was in response to the high death rate amongst those who participated in the ‘assisted emigration’, on board the ‘coffin ships’ from Ireland to North America. ‘Assisted emigration’ in this case was simply forced migration. Mahon’s death sped up ‘the departure of the landed gentry throughout Roscommon’, abandoning the poor to their fate. After Mahon died, his daughter Grace Catherine returned from her honeymoon to hear her father had been killed. The estate, at this time, was in dire straits, with huge debts. Grace Catherine vowed to never return to Strokestown, a promise which she kept. Her new marriage to the very rich Henry Sandford Pakenham, however, saved Strokestown Park from ruin and united it with an adjacent estate. Despite Strokestown Park’s improvement and better circumstances, the evicting and clearing of tenants continued. The estate also persisted with its ‘forced emigration’ policy, long after the Famine had ended.
Grace Catherine Pakenham-Mahon lived out her life on the Isle of Wight. However, in 1893, her son (another rich Henry Sandford Pakenham) went to Strokestown. He set about restoring the house to its former glory. He was the first person to take an interest in developing the Strokestown Gardens. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, Strokestown remained the property of the Mahon family. In 1979, the estate and the house, in a state of disrepair, were sold to the Westward Garage, a local company. Despite initially having other intentions for the house, they quickly realised that the estate was a treasure trove of original furnishings and documents relating to the history of County Roscommon, especially in relation to the Famine. Due to this, the house remains mostly in its original state, although restoration works are occasionally needed.
Nowadays, the National Famine Museum is in the old stables on the Strokestown estate, and is managed by the Irish Heritage Trust. It was opened to the public in 1994 by the then-President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Upon opening the museum, Robinson said ‘more than anything else, this Famine museum shows us that history is not about power or triumph nearly so often as it is about suffering and vulnerability. But why is the Famine Museum located in the seemingly random location of Strokestown, Country Roscommon? Areas such as West Cork had a higher mortality rate, for example. Thankfully, the Westward Garage understood the value of the documents they found and did not destroy them. These documents sometimes contain the only, final traces of people who otherwise left nothing behind. The rich landlords had the education and the time to document their lives, but the poorer, sometimes illiterate tenants did not. The documents in the archive in Strokestown include some heartfelt pleas from tenants not to be evicted, and the replies to them. Strokestown’s archival materials and the history of County Roscommon is what makes it special and why the Famine Museum is housed there. A local story that explains a national event.
Besides the museum, the house and gardens are also open for visitors. The combination of these exhibits provides an interesting contrast between the history of the rich family and that of the ‘normal’ people. It also brings the Famine into the modern day by providing comparisons with contemporary famines in developing countries and creating awareness.