The Great Hunger as genocide

Strokestown and the Great Irish Famine

by Ciarán Reilly

(Four Courts Press, €17.50)

J. Anthony Gaughan

At the outset, the author states that his aim is to introduce the reader to the Strokestown Park House archive and, in so doing, provide an insight into the varied experiences of famine gleaned from the records of those who inhabited the Strokestown estate in the 1840s. 

The archive contains more than 50,000 documents comprising rentals, leases, accounts, correspondence, maps, drawings, architectural plans and photographs.

James Callery, a native of the Strokestown area, purchased Strokestown Park House from its last resident, Mrs Olive Hales Pakenham Mahon (1894-1981), in 1979. Thereby he ensured the preservation of the archive and that it continued to remain in this country.

Strokestown Park House was built in 1696 and in subsequent years additions were made to it, not least by Maurice Mahon (1738-1819) who was rewarded for his support for the Act of Union with a peerage as 1st Baron Hartland. Following his death, the estate – consisting of more than 11,000 acres – was woefully mismanaged.


The devastation caused by the ‘Big Wind’ of 1839 was followed by three wet summers during which the harvest was rarely saved. Then came the total failure  of the potato crop in 1845 and 1846. On the Strokestown estate by 1847, starvation, hunger and disease was the lot of most of the landless labourers and the cottiers, who each owned just a half acre of land.

Major Denis Mahon took control of the estate in November 1845. It was almost £30,000 in debt owing to non-payment of rent. He believed that the widespread distress was caused as much by “the very large and overgrown population of the district” as by the failure of the potato crop, so he set about “clearing the paupers” from the estate. 

He organised the emigration of 275 families comprising 1,490 people to Canada via Liverpool. 

The suffering of the emigrants on the ‘coffin-ships’ was almost indescribable. The final death toll was appalling. Of those who had left Strokestown, more than 700 died and were buried at sea or at Gross Ile, where others lingered for weeks before succumbing to a variety of diseases.

In the meantime, the clearing of the estate continued apace. Cabins were de-roofed and their walls levelled and men, women and children left without shelter. This and news of the tragic conclusion to the emigration scheme caused widespread anger across the estate. In November 1847 as he returned from a meeting of the Roscommon Board of Guardians, Major Mahon was assassinated.

Initially, Fr Michael McDermott, the parish priest of Strokestown, was on friendly terms with Major Mahon and they served together on a relief committee. However, they soon became bitter adversaries with the parish priest continually lambasting the landlord for his merciless treatment of his tenants.

In the outcry over Major Mahon’s murder, inflammatory language used by Fr McDermott in his attacks on the landlord was recalled and he was accused of being responsible for the landlord’s death.


In the event the contrast between the public uproar caused by Major Mahon’s murder and the near silence surrounding the ‘disappearance’ of the thousands of cottiers, landless labourers and their families from the Strokestown estate was quite extraordinary.

In this scholarly monograph, Ciarán Reilly (a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates at NUI Maynooth) also explores ancillary significant issues associated with the Great Famine.

There was the role of the workhouse, the various relief committees, the public works schemes, the provision of Indian meal and the culpability of the local community who benefited from the ‘clearance’ of the 3,000 tenants and their families.

In the ultimate analysis, what happened at Strokestown and elsewhere in Ireland was akin to genocide and the main culpability for it lay in London, in Dublin and with the absentee landlords of Ireland.