A Letter from Ireland:

Have you Visited the Irish Famine Museum?


Many of our shared ancestors left Ireland because of the Great Irish Famine. Here is the story of just one of those locations that was severely affected – and it became the site for the Irish Famine Museum today.

John O’Driscoll – General Manager of Strokestown Park


Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. If this is your first time here you’re very welcome, I hope you enjoy reading this Letters from Ireland (if you would like to start receiving a FREE Letter from Ireland  straight to your inbox every week click here).

How are things in your part of the world today? We’ve just crossed over mid-summers here in Ireland – it’s a lovely bright time of the year and we have the added bonus this year of daytime temperatures well up in the 20s (degrees celsius). This is also traditionally the time when the first early potatoes are harvested – a really special treat alongside summer greens!

I’m sipping on a refreshing cup of Lyon’s tea as I write – and I do hope you’ll join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter.

A couple of weeks ago, we were on an Irish road-trip around the north-west counties of the island. One of the most striking locations was a place called Strokestown Park House in County Roscommon. And that is the focus of our letter today.

What Would You Do In This Situation?

The Strokestown Park estate sits in the middle of 11,000 acres in the rolling hillside of County Roscommon. Today, the beautiful house and stables (which houses the Irish Famine museum) are open to the public.

The house was built about 1735 on land granted to the Mahon family in 1653. It was a grand house, and must have been the scene of many major social occasions within the county. However, by the time the Great Famine arrived in 1845 – the population in Roscommon (and much of Ireland) had swollen to unsustainable levels. There was about one person per acre on the estate. Not only that, but following years of neglect and mismanagement by absentee landlords – the estate was over 30,000 pounds in debt.

Carina and John in the kitchen at Strokestown

The estate was then inherited by Major Denis Mahon. Major Mahon was, as before, and absentee landlord. The day-to-day affairs of the estate were handled by his land agent. As the Famine gained a grip on the surrounding countryside, the ability of the tenants to pay any sort of rent to their landlord quickly vanished. Major Denis Mahon had to make some hard decisions with the help of his land agent, John Ross Mahon.

They needed to clear the land of some of the “worst tenants” – those who looked as if they would never improve the land or pay their rent. After some investigation, they calculated that it would cost about £11,000 each year to maintain these “worst cases” in the local workouse. A cheaper option was to fund a one-off emigration scheme to move them to new lands in Quebec in what is now Canada. In either case, the land would be partially cleared and could be divided among the remaining, more productive tenants. Seems like a simple business problem, doesn’t it?

What would you do if you were in Major Denis Mahon’s situation? Move the worst tenants to the nearby workhouse? Move them to a new country? Something else?

Well, in May of 1847 – 1,490 of the tenants of Strokestown Park started down the pathway beside the Royal Canal. Their destination was the port of Dublin – about four days away. From there, they would go to Liverpool – wait about a week – and then board four ships for the voyage to Quebec. They were accompanied by the Bailiff to ensure they all made their way to Liverpool.

However, these people were already weakened from months of malnourishment before setting off on a long walk. Can you imagine how vulnerable they were as they arrived in Liverpool – a city already host to many outbreaks of cholera and typhus? The families were loaded onto four ships in Liverpool: the Naomi, the John Munn, the Erin’s Queen and the Virginius – their first port of call was to be the quarantine island of Gross Isle on the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec.

Statues in Dublin based on evictees from Strokestown

It turned out that Major Mahon’s agent had looked to save as much money as possible on this emigration scheme – and had reserved the cheapest boats with the most meagre of rations and medical support for the passengers. These ships – carrying the ex-tenants of Strokestown Park had the dubious honour of being the first named as “Coffin Ships” during the Great Famine.

For example, the Virginius – initially carrying 496 passengers – arrived in Gross Isle having lost 158 passengers during the passage or shortly afterwards. The number of deaths on the other ships were in similar proportions.

Upon their arrival at the quarantine island, Dr. George Douglas, a medical superintendent, described the Strokestown Park emigrants as “ghastly yellow looking spectres, unshaven and hollow cheeked, and, without exception, the worst looking passengers I have ever seen; not more than six or eight were really healthy and able to exert themselves.”

Today, many of these people are remembered on the memorial wall on the island of Grosse Île. It includes surnames from Strokestown Park such as:

Beirne, Brennan, Conboy, Connolly, Connor, Cunningham, Dolan, Donnellan, Duffy, Farrell, Feeny, Flanagan, Gilleran, Hanly, Hayden, Healy, Higgins, Kenny, Lyons, Mannion, McDermott, McDonnell, McHugh, Mullooly, Murray, Owens, Reynolds, Rodgers, Ryan, Sharkey, Whelan and many more. Are any of your Irish surnames here? Do let a comment below and let me know.

In November of 1847, Major Denis Mahon was assassinated when travelling back to Strokestown Park. It was the first landlord killing of the Famine, and it is believed that it was in direct response to the news of the high mortality rate reaching the remaining tenants on his land.

The Irish Famine Museum.

After Mahon died, his daughter Grace vowed to never return to Strokestown. However, the eviction of tenants continued for many years after the end of the Famine. Strokestown Park was improved over time and remained in the hands of the Mahon family until 1979. At that point, the house and gardens were sold to a local businessman who intended to develop it as a luxury hotel. However, when tidying up the house, the new owners came across many thousands of documents relating to the history of Strokestown Park and County Roscommon – many telling the stories of gentry, officials and tenants at the time of the Famine. As a result, the house was kept in its original state and the “National Irish Famine Museum” was established in the old stables.

Strokestown Park House Today

It’s a wonderful place to visit – the countryside is lovely, the house stands as a beautiful reminder of how a small minority once lived. As you make your way around the Famine Museum in the stables, you will quickly become aware of the stories of so many of the individuals who lived on this land at such a terrible time for many of our shared ancestors. Here is a link to Strokestown Park website – do have a look!

How about you? Did any of your Irish ancestors leave during the time of the famine? Do you think their experiences were similar to the tenants of Strokestown Park? Do leave a comment below and let us know.

That’s it for this week. We do look forward to you joining us again next week.

Slán for now, Mike & Carina.

  • […] Our Letter from Ireland all about Strokestown house and it’s history can be found here. […]

  • Carla says:

    My grandfather was Edward Whelan, from Co. Galway. I am looking forward to visiting Ireland next year and seeing this famine museum.

  • Harry micheal Hanly says:

    my father was micheal james Hanly fist born male his father was Henry Christopher Hanly born in dundrum 1919 first born male but found his birth certificate on line was 1921 and name had an E in it hanley he married mary hemlock my nan in 1954 his father was james hanly a horseman first born male he married mary Kelly my great great nan

  • lilian says:

    I love every bit of Ireland. You can enjoy your trip to Ireland

  • Irene Middlemas says:

    My adult daughters and I plan to visit Strokestown and the museum during our trip to Ireland in April. My great-grandfather, Thomas Donohoe, listed Strokestown as his place of birth in the 1911 English census. His father, Patrick, was listed in the Griffiths Valuation in 1857 as a tenant in the townland of Ashbrook on land owned by Sir Thomas Ross. I have been able to find the location (more or less) of the holding on Google maps. There does look like any of the buildings remain in the immediate area. If possible, I hope we will be able to see approximately where my great-grandfather might have been born. He emigrated to England sometime in the mid 1870

  • Elizabeth Potalivo says:

    My 2nd great grandparents Thomas and Bridget Foley (née McGrath), from Mt Uniacke, Cork, immigrated to Quebec is 1846. They left young sons behind to follow later. In 1956 John, Denis, Thomas Foley died at sea on the Pallas Cork which wrecked off the coast of Canada. Eight two of its one hundred twenty six passengers perished.

    I have a copy of a news paper article written a few months later.

  • Radlady48 says:

    My grandfather was Michael Mannion from Mayo. He made it to America in the 1880’s.

    • Carina says:

      Thanks for reading the article and joining us in The Green Room. Let’s see what more we now discover about your Mannion ancestor.

  • shirley kehoe says:

    Hi hoe your both well,

  • shirley kehoe says:

    I didnt get to finish the text. We have 9 of the surnames you have noted.

  • Deb Arvidson says:

    I read that Ireland suffered a series of small famines before the great one, however, I’ve not found much detail of the years before the great famine. My Nunan and Tarrant ancestors came to Boston in Oct 1835 from County Cork (Mallow and Donneraile). Was there any economic, political, or religious issues at that time that would push them immigrate?

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