Located in a pretty part of Ireland called Roscommon County, Strokestown Park House was the family seat of the Pakenham Mahon family from 1653 to 1981. Although a bit off the beaten track, it offers you a chance to see a lovely Georgian Palladian house, some interesting gardens, and the Irish National Famine Museum all on one site. When I visited in the fall of 2012, brilliant red Virginia creeper covered the old stone walls and the heritage apples were ready for picking. Here’s a peek through the lens of my camera.
While the house and gardens alone are worth a visit, the National Irish Famine Museum is the icing on the cake. Not large, it draws on what may be the best private archive on the Great Irish Famine to illuminate the history of that tragic era, while drawing parallels to this ongoing scourge in other countries.
During the 19th century, the landed gentry in Ireland employed tenants who lived on and worked the land and paid the landlords rent. Besides what foodstuffs they raised, these tenants kept various animals, which provided them with eggs, meat and dairy products. When times were hard and crops failed or the piece of land they farmed was too small to support them, the tenants had to sell off their livestock to meet their obligations. Once the animals were gone, their sources of food became very limited.
Potatoes were easy to grow and filling, and by 1840 the ordinary Irishman might eat about 14 pounds of them a day. Unfortunately, one of the cheapest and most commonly grown potatoes, the lumper, was weak and disease-prone. The potato blights, such as the disastrous one in 1845, meant not only that the tenants had nothing to eat that season, but also that they had no seed potatoes to plant for the next crop — a vicious circle. Unfortunately, a damp spring in 1846 infected the few potatoes that had been salvaged for planting.
With nothing to eat and no prospects, the tenants fell into arrears in their rent, and some landlords drove them out from their cottages, which were then pulled down, forcing families to live rough in makeshift hovels or go to the workhouse. However, with the passage of the Poor Law Extension Act in 1847, landlords became responsible for their tenants’ keep in the workhouse, and many found it was considerably cheaper to pay for their “assisted emigration” to the colonies.
Already weakened by hunger and living for weeks in close unsanitary quarters that fostered the spread of disease, many Irish died during these crossings on the “coffin ships”. For example, on the Strokestown estate, the landlord, Major Denis Mahon, sent some 1,000 of his poorest tenants to Quebec, which was one of the least costly destinations. One ship, the Virginius, which set sail on May 27, 1847 carrying 476 Strokestown refugees, had an unusually long crossing of 63 days. By the time the Virginius arrived at Grosse Île, 158 of those on board had died and 180 others were ill.
That summer, some 5,500 Irish immigrants died on Grosse Île, which is now home to the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. Those who survived and went to the mainland brought dysentery and typhus to much of British North America. In angry letters sent by Canadian officials to the Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, certain Irish landlords were accused of clearing their estates of the weakest, most sickly paupers and dumping them in the colonies. One of those cited was Major Denis Mahon of Strokestown Park, who had had the bad luck to inherit his estate just as the potato famine started. Nonetheless, he was hated and held responsible for many deaths. On November 2, 1847, Denis Mahon was ambushed and shot, the first landlord to be murdered as a result of the famine
Strokestown Park House and the Irish National Famine Museum are open year round
I stayed at Gleeson’s Townhouse and Restaurant, a comfortable three-star inn right in the heart of the pleasant market town of Roscommon, which is 29 km (18 miles) from Strokestown. They serve excellent organic and locally sourced food—in fact, Gleeson’s has its own gourmet food and wine shop next door.
In 2013, Tourism Ireland is promoting The Gathering, year-long celebration. Everyone of Irish descent, or with an interest in Ireland, is invited to come visit and partake of a rich array of special events.
Photos by Aldona Satterthwaite