RE: Dennis Mahon and the ships Virginius, Naomi, Erin's Queen and John Nunn

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Posted by Murrisk on May 24, 2001 at 00:08:08:

In Reply to: Re: On this day posted by Murrisk on May 23, 2001 at 23:51:05:

County Roscommon
Biography & General History Records Board

Major Denis Mahon, Landlord - Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, IR

Posted by Jean Rice on Sun, 07 Jan 2001

Per Edward Laxton's spellbinding book, "The Famine Ships," (1997), in looking at the economics existing on many of the great estates in Ireland and the simple sums presented by their land agents to the owners of those estates, it cost a landlord half as much in one year to send his tenants abroad than it would cost to keep them at home.

Strokestown, a tiny community in Co. Roscommon, is geographically close to the center of Ireland, and here a Famine Museum was recently opened by Mary Robinson, then President of Ireland, to mark the 150th anniversary of the year of 1845 when the Famine began. Strokestown Park House and the surrounding estate, which stretched for 9,000 acres, epitomized the problems Ireland faced as the Famine took hold of the country.

The land at Strokestown was granted to the Mahon family around 1680 by the English King Charles II, in return for their support during the Civil Wars. Fifty years later, Thomas Mahon, who had become a Member of Parliament, built the grand house in the Palladian style which can be traced back to the Romans. Even the stables where the museum was sited had vaulted ceilings and there was a galleried kitchen which allowed the lady of the house to remain aloft and watch her cooks and servants at work below.

The estate passed down through generations of elder sons in the family, and In July, 1800, Maurice Mahon accepted a peerage to become the First Baron Hartland of Strokestown. But the last of the line, grandson of the original Lord Mahon, was declared insane, and when he died in 1845, without any children to follow him, the estate had suffered ten years of neglect. Ownership passed to a cousin, Major Denis Mahon, whose name became notorious two years later, at the height of the Famine.

Major Mahon was not entirely an absentee landlord, but he spent much of his time in England. Land agents ran the Irish estate for a fee, and at the new owner's command, unfortunately coinciding with the first season's failure of the potato crop, they prepared a plan for evicting tenants. Three years of rent arrears totalled 13,000 pounds. Several hundred of Denis Mahon's tenants became emigrants. Willingly or unwillingly, they took their place in the Landlord Emigration sweeping through the grand estates of Ireland.

Two of the ships which carried the majority of Major Mahon's former tenants to Canada were the infamous "coffin ships" the "Virginius" and the "Naomi," condemned by Dr. George Douglas at Grosse Isle; there had been more than 200 deaths at sea with another 200 passengers critically sick with fever on arrival. The physical condition of the passengers prior to the voyage was held to be partly responsible for so many deaths.

Whatever the reasons, not six months after they left Ireland, on November 2, 1847, Major Mahon was assassinated, shot in the chest as he drove his carriage home late in the afternoon to Strokestown Park House. He died instantly. He was not the first landlord to be murdered, but the controversy surrounding the estate clearings rumbled on for many months, with dozens of letters in Irish and English newspapers, and debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords in London. Catholic priests and bishops were drawn into the row, which lasted until the last of the killers was hanged late in 1848. Whatever the rights and wrongs of 60-year-old Major Mahon's conduct, his death ensured that there were suddenly more absentee landlords in Ireland who fled the country in fear of their lives. The politicians had a field day, Irish organizations agitated for a return to governing the country from Dublin instead of London, sided with the Roscommon peasantry who were accused of conspiring against their landlord. The "Freeman's Journal" stated that the people were said to be displeased at him for two reasons: "The first was his refusal to continue the conacre system, the second was his clearing away what he deemed to be the surplus population.... In every other relation of his life Major Mahon was, we believe, much respected."

The poorest of those working on the land were squatters without any legal claim to the piece of ground they occupied. In a slightly better position were those working in the conacre system - although tenants were not granted any rights, under conacre they would benefit from tending a stretch of farmland without any lease for a year at a time, the landlord maintaining and preparing the soil for sowing and taking a rent after the crop was harvested. Popular among the peasantry, conacre was less so with the landlords who too often found the rents difficult to raise, and after the first seasons's calamity with the potato, often impossible to collect at all.

Through the accumulation of poor rates paid by the landlords, it was hoped to support the really destitute population in the 130 workhouses originally planned in Ireland. In 1847, some of those had not opened, and some had not been built while others like that in Roscommon, faced bankruptcy. Denis Mahon sat on a Local Relief Committee and shortly before his death he argued publicly with the chairman, the local priest, Father Michael McDermott, and the day before his death the priest attacked Major Mahon from the pulpit.

Reports in the local "Longford Journal," in the week of the murder, and carried by "The Times" in London, stated that Mahon's attempts to alleviate the distress was equal to any gentleman in the country possessing a similar income, that, indeed, it could be said that he had none, having to live on other resources, as he had received little or no rent for the last 18 months. It was also said that he was an honorable gentleman who had spent 6,000 to 8,000 pounds to assist thankful, poor people out of Ireland, and as such he had been abused, being portrayed as a tyrant and oppressor of the poor.

In April of the following year, the "Freeman's Journal" headlined: Extermination by Thousands! The Strokestown Massacure Developed." By now the news of the typhus and the horrors of Grosse Isle had reached Ireland, and the Bishop of Elpin wrote a report on the evictions at Strokestown, attacking Denis Mahon and holding him accountable for the deaths of 3,006 men, women, including 84 widows, and children.

In many earlier exchange of letters between the local agent and Major Mahon, who was away for long periods to Manchester, a four-day journey from Roscommon, and London, which was probably a week away, the Major had written that he could not afford 5,000 pounds and urged the agent to find a cheaper passage out of Sligo or through the port of Liverpool. He argued that he had to borrow money to pay those tenatns who wanted to travel independently a small renumeration for their livestock and crops, and he needed to borrow more to pay the fares of others plus the cost of extra food for the voyage - rice, salt, oatmeal and salted herrings - to provide one pound of food per day above the government ration.

Nearly 1,000 emigrated on the "John Nunn" and the "Erin's Queen" as well as the filty "coffin ships" the "Virginius" and "Naomi." A great many tragically failed to complete the journey and many more died soon after setting foot in Canada. They were dying in Roscommon, too, from typhus and dysentery and fever sheds had been raised on the estate in the village of Dysart. Many victims had received some compensation for giving up their land and were then found to be too ill to travel.

Four days after his death, 288 acres of prime land and a lovely farmhoues were put up for auction, but the sale was cancelled when the highest bid was too low. Within a matter of weeks four more landlords in Ireland were shot and land agents and rate collectors were threatened and assaulted. Nearly a full year passed before two men, Patrick Hasty and James Cummins, were tried and publicly hanged for killing Major Denis Mahon.

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