Strokestown House home to time capsule of the Great Hunger: The National Famine Museum reopens

Visitors get a three-pronged window into the lives of those who lived and worked there

“And what must we do. Our families really and truly suffering in our [presence] and we cannot much longer withstand their cries for food. We have no food for them, our potatoes are rotten and we have no grain.”

These are the direct voices of men whose families are starving, pleading for work. It’s part of the Clonahee petition, one item in the unique and extensive archives of Strokestown Park, Co Rosscomon, now the National Famine Museum, which tell the story of the Great Hunger through those voices, found in artefacts and documents hoarded over centuries in boxes in the almost untouched big house.

There’s an edge of slight threat in the desperate petition: “We fear that the peace of the country will be much disturbed if relief be not immediately more extensively afforded to the suffering peasantry. We are not for joining in any thing illegal or contrary to the laws of God or the land unless pressed to by HUNGER.”

At the end of Stokestown’s gracious main street — the second widest street in Ireland, they say — are a set of fine gates. Up the avenue is the grand house, a time capsule in north Roscommon. It exposes the layers of the social structure of the time — landlord class, middlemen, cottiers with some leasehold rights, conacre tenants with none — which exacerbated the effects when the potato crop failed.


The National Famine Museum reopens in early July after almost a year of extensive redevelopment and restoration costing €5 million, funded by the Irish Heritage Trust, which now manages it; Jim Callery’s Westward Group, which owns Strokestown Park; and Failte Ireland. It was the location for this year’s National Famine Commemoration on May 15th.

They are nearing project completion when I visit. Artefacts in the 300-year-old house have been carefully set aside to allow for essential conservation work, chiefly refurbishing the original windows and installing a heating system to protect the delicate contents. Work is well along on the extended cafe, and across the cobbled yard from the museum, the former stables with a stunning vaulted roof and storage rooms for years, are shaping up into an elegant space for functions and performances.

The museum has had a major makeover curated by Dr Emma O’Toole, Irish Heritage Trust collections and interpretation manager, and a large team including Strokestown’s general manager John O’Driscoll and archivist Martin Fagan, historical adviser Jason King, an international advisory committee of Famine experts, and project managers.

There were 20 signatories to the Clonahee petition: William Flanagan, John Flanagan, Patt McEvoy, Pat Caulfield, Thomas Burne ... It’s like an incantation. We’re listening to the local voice reading the petition, in the dimmed museum, as the actual pages of the August 22nd 1846 document, expressing the desperation of the starving with a subtext of anger, are suspended at eye level in a glass case.

The revamped museum uses modern exhibition techniques — projections, soundscapes, voiceover — to tell the broader story of the culture and day-to-day Irish life before, during and after the Famine, through the dramatic stories of this estate and its cruel particulars. It does so from different perspectives, including the landlord class. (There’s even a recipe for lobster soup.)

Of national and international importance, the Strokestown archive is the largest collection of material relating to the Great Famine and a complete record of 300 years of economic, social and estate history.

When he bought Strokestown House from Olive Packenham Mahon in 1979 (needing space for expanding his Westward Group truck business), businessman Jim Callery — a native of Cloonahee townland — discovered a room full of boxes of papers. Realising their significance, he resolved to preserve the archive, a decision which led ultimately to establishing the Famine museum under the directorship of Luke Dodd.

Unusually, the house still had all its contents, spanning centuries of family life. It was in a state O’Driscoll describes as “delightfully dilapidated”; he mentions the good fortune that the Pakenham Mahon family were hoarders, and that “Jim [Callery] minds things”.

A British military man Nicholas Mahon was granted a large amount of land in Strokestown in 1653, where a house was built from 1696 on. The estate thrived and the house grew grandly over several generations, but by 1845 it was heavily indebted when it was inherited, on the brink of famine, by a cousin, Major Denis Mahon.

Visitors to Strokestown Park now get a three-pronged window into the lives of generations who lived and worked there over three centuries: Palladian House, the historic walled gardens and the Famine museum. The big house includes a playroom with vintage toys, the original kitchen, a gracious library with faint chalk-marks, from when Packenham Mahon children shoved furniture to the side and rolled back the rug to mark a badminton court. Six acres of walled gardens include a restored croquet lawn, summer house, international specimens and woodland.

Though it’s emblematic of the greater story of the Irish Famine, there’s quite the narrative in this estate’s particular story.

The museum starts in the stables, with horses neighing in the background, and moves into a stylised dining room as would the gentry, arriving for a feast. A shadow-figure paces in the background, symbolising an estate already financially on the back foot — £30,000 in debt, €5 million in today’s money — even as it maintains a facade of wealth and political connections. The museum’s multiplicity of viewpoints starts here: on the one hand bills for six dozen pints claret, and four dozen pints of champagne and that lobster soup recipe, “got from a gentleman who brought it from Germany ... I think it was the best soup I ever saw”; on the other a list of people “As many of those as are living are to have a piece of meat” for Christmas in 1842.

It leads us through the social structure, the houses and lives and concerns of each level, through the Great Hunger, eviction and migration. The documents are the foundation, “offering invaluable insights into the parallel lives of the tenants, cottiers, middlemen and landlords who experienced the Great Irish Famine,” says curator O’Toole, so that the museum “encourages visitors to explore the Famine from the different perspectives of Ireland’s social classes. Visitors can engage with the landlord’s perspective, his power, dilemmas and controversial assassination, while also discovering the tenant’s experience of hunger, eviction and exile through voluntary and assisted migration.”

The Clonahee is not the only one; six petitions are seen here, fleshing out the concerns of cottiers, counterpointed by a census of Major Denis Mahon’s estate in March 1847, noting the names of town lands, parish, number of families and individuals. Worlds coexist. Across from it is a tiny, delicate letter, possibly from a Miss Conry, to young Grace Catherine Mahon in 1846, writing of sea air, reading novels and plans for balls.

With the estate in debt, the potato crop failing, and tenants unable to pay rent, Denis Mahon instigated a plan, masterminded by his land agent John Ross Mahon, to clear his land by paying tenants’ passage to emigrate. And so in 1847, at the height of the Famine, 1,490 people from the Mahon estate walked 165km from Strokestown along the Royal Canal to Custom House Quay in Dublin, to board what became coffin ships. The walk was arduous, and the sea crossing deathly. The mortality rate on the Virginius, one of the ships carrying Mahon tenants, was 56 per cent.

Marking that Famine walk, Strokestown is now the starting point of the National Famine Way, an interactive self-guided historic trail with a “passport-guide”, map and app following their footsteps, the route now punctuated by evocative sculptures: more than 30 bronze pairs of 19th-century children’s shoes.

When news of the horror reached Strokestown, a Rev MacDermott had strong words from the pulpit: that the landlord was worse than Cromwell “and yet he lives”. Mahon was assassinated on his return one night to Strokestown House. There followed national attention, and a hunt for the perpetrators. Of four believed responsible, two were executed, one had his sentence reduced to imprisonment and one escaped. After the assassination Mahon’s son-in-law carried out evictions and land clearances with even more vigour.

The Famine story of Strokestown involved choices, Fagan points out. Mahon inherited a problem, an estate in debt, but he chose to reduce the drain on his resources with the emigration scheme. He could perhaps have sold land. Or he could have sent the tenants from Sligo instead of Dublin, with a far better life expectancy on a ship with a better reputation. But the Sligo tickets were more expensive.

It was also a “choice” for the tenants, but that was between emigration and starvation.

It also raises what-ifs: If they had gone from Sligo, without the huge death toll, “would Mahon instead have been regarded as a genteel landlord who had done his best by his tenants by paying their passage?”

Fagan talks about striving for a tone of balance in the museum, telling the story from several angles, “so that when you come out of the museum you are challenged, with events and documents from one side and then the other. It’s not dictating how you feel at the end”. While there are elements of conflicting narrative, with a weighing of truths and perspectives, Fagan concedes visitors will probably side with the tenants.

The duality and complexity is everywhere. “He inherited a massive problem,” says O’Driscoll. “The estate was broke. There was no likelihood of rent coming in [because the potatoes had failed]. But the estate was rich in produce, with venison, a 6.5 acre walled garden.”

Fagan observes “the big losers in the Famine were the Irish-speaking conacre tenants, living on marginal lands, on potatoes, practising an older, more folky, less clerical Catholicism. They carried the culture and the language, and they were wiped out. On the other side there’s the slow decline of the landlord class, beginning post-Famine. Within 50 years their position as the dominant political economic group in Ireland has ended. An emerging Catholic middle class inherits Ireland. The two extremes, the wealthy and the poor, were wiped out by the Famine.”

Leaving Strokestown, there’s a small poster on the gate for a folk musical, produced by Enchanted Croi (June 24th–26th in Strokestown Park’s vaulted stables). In the Midst of Plenty is the musical; the phrase echoes what Strokestown is all about: the nuance, the complex social structure, laying out different truths and the progression of events through the Famine, our soul’s greatest sore.

Strokestown Park, the National Famine Museum reopens to visitors from early July. Pre-booking on from June 20th

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times