Behind the News: Kevin Baird, heritage trustee
The Irish Heritage Trust is excited to be taking over Strokestown Park and the Irish National Famine Museum, says the trust’s chief executive
The layers of history at Strokestown Park House will draw tourists from around the world, as well as from Ireland, to Co Roscommon, according to Kevin Baird, chief executive of the Irish Heritage Trust.
Baird is excited about the new arrangement, which sees all existing staff remain in place and continued financial and advisory support from Westward Garage Group, which owns the property.
“By working together, I believe, we can add value to the place, which currently has 50,000 visitors a year,” Baird says.
The project was running at a loss of about €200,000 a year, according to Jim Callery of the Westward Group.
Baird’s first big task for Strokestown Park House is to attract financial support. “There hasn’t been any State funding allocated for it yet, but we will be seeking support anywhere we can,” Baird says.
One of the interesting stories about Strokestown is that of Callery himself. The Co Roscommon garage owner and commercial-vehicle dealer bought the estate from Olive Pakenham Mahon in the 1970s. Over the decades the Westward Group restored the walled Victorian pleasure gardens, the Georgian fruit and vegetable gardens and, most recently, the woodland walks.
But it was Callery’s chance discovery of documents about the Famine in the basement of the house that led to the establishment of the National Irish Famine Museum.
“It is these archives, which have just been catalogued and summarised by researchers at Maynooth University, which give Strokestown its international status,” Baird says.
The archive of more than 50,000 documents led to the setting up of the annual Irish Famine Summer School, which attracts students from across the United States and Canada.
Some of the significant discoveries in the archives include letters from Strokestown tenants during the Famine alerting the then owner, Maj Denis Mahon, to their dire situation.
Mahon subsequently evicted about 1,500 tenants, more than 700 of whom died on so-called coffin ships on their way to Quebec.
In November 1847 Denis Mahon was murdered just outside his estate, and no member of the family returned to the estate until his grandson Henry Pakenham Mahon inherited the property. It was his daughter, Olive Pakenham Mahon, who sold the estate to Callery.
Baird believes visitors will be also interested in the “decaying grandeur” of the Georgian Palladian-style villa, which has most of its original furniture and paintings.
Caroilin Callery, daughter of Jim, who is now on the board of the Irish Heritage Trust, has taken a great interest in the project. This week, she said, “the house has gone from landlord to tenant and, in a way, will now go back to the people.”
The Irish Heritage Trust was set up in 2006 and has managed Fota House, in Co Cork, since 2007.