When Caroilin Callery was a teenager, her father Jim bought the 300-acre Strokestown estate in Co Roscommon from Olive Hales Pakenham.
“It was as if the family had just walked out the door. All their belongings were around; even the family portraits were hanging on the walls. I used to love wandering through the house,” Callery says.
The house was full of history: Pakenham’s ancestor Major Denis Mahon was a landlord who was murdered during the Famine in 1847.
But Jim Callery was less interested in Strokestown House or its history than he was in the lands around it. Indeed, he had only been in the drawingroom of the house at the time he did the deal in 1979. But he needed a few acres to expand his business, and the entire estate was what was on offer. So he took it.
He was somewhat taken aback a few years later when he discovered more than 55,000 musty documents, many relating to the Famine, in the house. For better or worse the family had been entrusted with safeguarding part of the legacy of the Famine, and the National Famine Museum is just one manifestation of that responsibility.
On Saturday, when she and a group of neighbours walk 155km from Strokestown to the Dublin docks, Caroilin Callery will be retracing the steps of the “missing 1,490”, the starving tenants who set out on foot from the estate in May 1847. Major Mahon had offered them the choice of emigration through “assisted passage”, starvation on their blighted potato patch farms or a place in the terrifying local workhouse.
After walking for days along the tow paths of the Royal Canal to Dublin, the weary men, women and children were put on boats to Liverpool, and from there to
aboard four notorious “coffin ships”.
Caroilin Callery says the Royal Canal was “the N4 of that time” and was the most likely route for Mahon’s tenants.
It was one of the largest “assisted emigration” schemes of the Famine era, a mass movement of people with impossible choices.
While initially dubious about the scheme, the landlord notoriously booked passage for his tenants on cargo ships, rather than passenger ones, and according to some estimates, as many as 50 per cent did not survive the journey to Canada.
"Another very sad and ironic fact is that these people initially travelled to Liverpool on boats loaded with grain from Ireland. They were lying under tarpaulin on deck, on top of this wheat," says Callery.
She is director of the inaugural Irish Famine Summer School which takes place in Strokestown House from June 17th to 21st . It will be launched by Minister for the Arts Heather Humphreys when she greets the walkers on the Jeanie Johnston on their arrival in Dublin on Wednesday.
Callery says she will be thinking of the tenants as she follows in their footsteps today.
“I will be thinking of the children walking barefoot, the hungry mothers carrying babies, the corpses they must have seen along the canal.
" I will be thinking about Mary Tighe who is often in my mind, who left with her brother and her five children after her husband Bernard died."
Mary Tighe and three of her children died before their ship docked at Grosse Île. Her son Daniel (12) and daughter Catherine (9) survived, and two years ago Daniel’s great-grandson
visited Strokestown in one of the more moving visits of the Gathering.
Callery and her neighbours will spend five days walking, overnighting in Abbeyshrule, Mullingar, Enfield and Maynooth. They are hoping that hundreds will join them along the route.
The scale of the exodus from Strokestown was discovered by Dr Ciarán Reilly from Maynooth University, author of Strokestown and the Great Irish Famine. He says estate bailiff John Robinson, who was paid two shillings to escort the tenants to Liverpool, was "given strict instructions that none were ever to return to Roscommon".
In November 1847 Major Mahon became the first landlord to be murdered during the Famine.
“Word got back about the condition of the ships. There was a lot of anger,” says Callery.