In the early evening of November 2, 1847, Major Denis Mahon of Strokestown Park House was returning from a meeting in Roscommon when he was shot and killed by an assassin. Dr. Terence Shanley and the coachman who were also in the carriage, tried to steady the horses. A second shooter, standing in a field on the other side of the road, then pulled the trigger of his gun, but the weapon misfired. The two assailants fled into the darkness leaving Major Mahon dead and Dr. Shanley slightly injured.Next Step
You are part of a Crime Scene Investigation team who will carry out an in-depth inquiry into the murder of Major Denis Mahon. Through your research, facilitated by this WebQuest and on-site research at the house, you will look into the motive for the crime, and examine the murder weapon. You will then decide whether the killing of Denis Mahon was carried out with ‘mitigating circumstances’ or whether it was simply a mindless act of brutal murder.
You can use this information in several ways:
You might fill in this RIC crime report form
You might hold a court hearing – dividing your class into a defence and prosecution
You might write a newspaper report detailing the crime and it’s motives - this could be written in the style of a current-day journalist (with historical hindsight) or in the style of a contemporary journalist (we have links to contemporary newspaper articles that will help you with this).
OR … collaborate with your teacher to think of a way to use the information you gather. What about a podcast exploring some aspect of the case for visitors to the house?
Although the ‘Great Famine’ is seen as a turning point in the history of Ireland, opinions about its root causes and the efficiency of famine relief are still widely debated.
In recent years Irish historians have sought to approach study of the famine in a balanced manner, taking a ‘revisionist’ approach. Look at this piece by Mary Daly ‘Revisionism and Irish History: The Great Famine’ (it is quite long, concentrate on the introductory paragraphs and conclusion).
In contrast, in 1996 the Great Famine was included in the New Jersey history curriculum as an example of genocide. Look at these resources, assembled for students studying the famine in New Jersey. Read here about the debate which ensued following the introduction of this unit.
What impressions do these documents give you of the different approaches to analysing the famine?Next Step
Smart web searching
When you are using this WebQuest, be aware that all links open in a new window or tab.
You are searching the Web for very specific information and need to search in a smart way. Use this tutorial to quickly pick up tips on how to 'smartsearch' and recognise quality information online.
Searching for ‘Strokestown’ alone may not work. You need to think of all the words relating to the house. The owner of Strokestwon before Denis Mahon inherited it was called ‘Lord Hartland’ so you may need to search using that term. More generally you could search for Roscommon, Famine, Assisted Emigration etc.
This website is loaded with resources to help you investigate the murder of Major Mahon. There are letters written by Major Mahon and letters written by those who knew him. There are papers from the Famine Relief Commission archives relating directly to famine relief in Strokestown. There are also relevant contemporary newspaper articles.
The UCC Multitext Project has useful information on the Great Famine and Landlordism. Clare County Library have interesting information on the link between famine and crime. The University of Limerick have just made a set of documents about the famine and emigration to Canada in 1847 compiled by the French-Canadian Sisters of Charity who cared for sick Irish emigrants.Next Step
The British Newspaper Archive (you can search, and if you find something useful, register for 15 free credits so you can download the article you need)
In the autumn of 1846, Denis Mahon appointed John Ross Mahon (no relation) as his land agent. Having carried out an intensive survey of the estate, John Ross Mahon found that overpopulation and overcrowding levels were unsustainable. The land was so subdivided that there were layers and layers of tenants and sub-tenants. Rundale collectives rented many pieces of land and more plots were distributed in conacre auctions. There was great competition for land, with the highest rents for the smallest plots generally being paid by the poorest.
Such inequality led to the outbreak of agrarian violence and the formation of secret societies like the ‘Molly Maguires’ (skip to section ‘Mollies in Ireland’). They intimidated those renting land (usually farmers and middlemen who rented out land) to offer conacre plots and to rent land at lower prices, amongst other acts of intimidation. Such secret societies would also encourage tenants to form a ‘combination’ and go on a rent-strike, refusing to pay rent to their landlord.
John Ross Mahon formulated a plan for the estate in which two-thirds of the tenants would be cleared. This plan was drawn up just as the true calamity of the Great Famine was being felt in Strokestown. By January 1847 Denis Mahon wrote to his agent to discuss evictions, especially mentioning those who had formed a combination to pay rent, wishing that ‘every legal means may be restored to to get rid of such off my estate’. The letter also mentions goods seized from tenants by the sheriff, either to induce them to pay rent, or in lieu of rent. The process of evicting so many tenants was noted in the press, ‘The State of Roscommon’ was noted in The Times of London in July 1847.Next Step
In order to understand famine relief and Major Mahon’s involvement in it, it’s important to grasp the rural population’s dependence on the potato, the appearance of the potato blight and something about the Irish Poor Law of 1838. You can look at this article for an extended discussion of ‘The Poor Law and the Great Irish Famine’.Next Step
Major Denis Mahon, as chairman of the Strokestown committee, wrote to the Lord Lieutenant in June 1846 with a list of subscriptions and describing the area as ‘distressed’. Through the public works schemes and supply of cheap Indian maize people were kept from starving in the summer of 1846. These temporary schemes were phased out as the harvest was anticipated.
When the potato crop failed again in the autumn of 1846 the situation became more serious. The Whig government sought to phase out the sale of Indian meal while reforming the public works schemes. In the autumn of 1846 local relief commissions were also coming in for reform. Denis Mahon, as chairman of the Strokestown committee dismissed the Catholic clergy, who wrote this angry letter to the Lord Lieutenant. While Father McDermott was reinstated to the committee, the curates were not. Denis Mahon spent the winter of 1846-7 in England, but his name can still be seen on a subscription list of 26th December 1847 for the establishment of a ‘soup shop’.
During these harsh winter months bodies began appearing in the roadsides. On January 5th Lord John Russell said ‘the pressing matter is to keep people alive’. On Jaunuary 9th Roscommon workhouse, full to capacity, stopped giving food to non-residents who sought relief. At just this time Major Mahon was undertaking the eviction plan designed by his agent, John Ross Mahon, which is discussed in his letter of the 3rd January.
As 1847 wore on Denis Mahon, still in England, began to have doubts about his eviction plan and showed sympathy with the plight of the tenants, as can be read in this letter of the 7th March. The Strokestown Relief Committee describe the state of the country side in their letter to Dublin Castle on 26th March.
In the context of this worsening situation Denis Mahon and his agent, John Ross Mahon, did decide to push ahead with some evictions, as can be read in the Roscommon Journal in the first week of July 1847. One week later, Major Mahon arrived home in Strokestown. He did not attend the July meeting of the Strokestown Relief Committee, but did attend the August 28th meeting, where he and the local Catholic priest, Fr. McDermott clashed over the management of the relief effort. Fr. McDermott accused Mahon of amusing himself in London and doing nothing upon his return to Strokestown but burned out houses and turned out people to starve. On the following Sunday the priest went a step further and, according to some sources, denounced Major Mahon from the altar in his sermon.
Having carried out an intensive survey of the Strokestown lands, Denis Mahon’s agent found that overpopulation and overcrowding were too great and that the estate could not afford either to keep them in the workhouse or indeed to eject them.
The population of many townlands he estimated held two-thirds more than what the land was capable of providing. To keep the peasant population in the workhouse would cost over £11,634 – whereas emigration to Quebec would cost £5,865. For John Ross Mahon, the land agent, the only viable option was to assist in their emigration. He set about persuading Major Mahon that assisted emigration was the best way of making the estate profitable.
Through the whole process of assisting his tenants emigration, Major Mahon had two concerns: to make sure only the 'poorest and worst' tenants should be sent, and that the cost of the whole venture should be kept as low as possible. This is made clear in his letter of the 14 April 1847, along with the fact that the emigration scheme was planned to coincide with a mass eviction of tenants. Those who were to emigrate were forgiven their arrears in rent and allowed to sell their crops, in addition they were given food rations for the journey. Importantly, those who were thought to be in a 'combination' withholding rent were not to be offered the chance to emigrate, as this June letter outlines.
In this article about Grosse Isle , Denis Mahon and his emigration plan are specifically mentioned. Information is also given about what the prospects were for Mahon tenants after they left the quarantine station.
While the Mahon tenants made their way across Canada, many to those they knew in the US, those who remained in Ireland faced different kinds of hardship. Major Mahon and his land agent continued with their clearances, removing 1000 tenants from fifteen townlands. The soup kitchen ceased operation and Father McDermott described the situation as such:
‘About five-sixths of the population are wholly destitute. Between four and five hundred died of actual starvation, and 200 more of diseases produced by the famine. Three hundred more emigrated, and fully 600 are infected by disease at the present moment … It is bad as can be, and people must die in numbers unless relieved.’Next Step
Two groups of Mahon tenants left the estate for Quebec, one group in late May and one in early June. There were 872.5 people in all, the exact number is hard to calculate as children were counted as .5 of an adult. They first made the 60 mile trip to Dublin, which may have taken a few days. Once in Dublin they were loaded onto packet steamers upon which they made the 24 hour trip to Liverpool on deck, often sharing the space with animals.
Upon landing in Liverpool the passengers underwent a cursory medical inspection and then were transferred to waterfront lodgings, many of which were unsanitary. Upon embarking on the ships to Quebec, the tenants were given another medical inspection and found fit to travel. The Mahon tenants left Liverpool on the following ships: Virginius, 29 May (476 passengers, nearly all Mahon tenants), Erin's Queen, 1 June, Naomi, 15 June (334 passengers, nearly all Mahon tenants), John Munn, 16 June. The health of the passangers upon departure, along with the conditions aboard what became known as 'coffin ships' lead to sickness and death for many passangers. Search this webpage for the names of the ships sailed on by the Mahon tenants to get an idea of how many arrived in Canada, and how many did not survive the journey.
The four ships loaded with Mahon passangers, upon arrival in the St. Lawrence River, had to be inspected for disease. Those found to be sick were offloaded at the quarentine station at Grosse Isle, read here about the overcrowding and death at Grosse Isle and here where details of the Virginius are given. For an in depth account of the experience of the Irish emigrant on board ship read The Ocean Plague: A Voyage to Quebec in an Irish Emigrant Vessel Embracing a Quarentine in Grosse Isle in 1847 by a Cabin Passenger by Robert Whyte.
Two rewards were offered for information – £200 put forward by the government and £800 by the Mahon family, but little useful was obtained. Some came forward in the hope of obtaining money, while others had little useful to contribute. Here is the testimony of Thomas Tiernan, an old soldier. How useful is it to your investigation?
The family was anxious to hear any new facts about the murder, as demonstrated by this letter from Henry Sandford Pakenham-Mahon to the local Strokestown magistrate sent just two months after the murder (Henry and his wife left Strokestown after the murder to live on the Isle of Wight, never returning to the estate). John Ross Mahon, Henry Sandford Pakenham-Mahon and other members of the local gentry were issued death threats in the weeks after the murder. Here is the letter Marcus McCausland, Major Mahon’s cousin, sent to the Lord Lieutenant along with the threatening letter his wife had received.
Immediately after Major Mahon was shot, the coachman and Dr Shanley raced the phaeton, also riddled with shot, the four miles on to Strokestown. Dr Shanley reported the murder to the local Royal Irish Constabulary sub-inspector Thomas Blakeney. By the following afternoon a full investigation was underway and several local residents were brought to Roscommon town for questioning before the lieutenants, magistrates and justices of the peace of the county. This assembly of local gentry met again on the 9th of November and agreed upon a set of resolutions to be forwarded to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle. The second resolution was a call for the power to ‘proclaim districts’ where atrocities had taken place, i.e. that a new Coercion Act should be introduced.
Little information was gained from local residents and the authorities concluded that an extensive and deep laid conspiracy’ existed against Major Mahon’s life. Much can be learned about the feelings of the local tenant population to news of the murder – on the night Mahon was shot and the night after bonfires were lit on all the hills around the estate. The RIC did release a description of ‘two strangers and suspicious looking characters … who were seen lurking about the spot where he was murdered and were suspected to have been the persons who committed the act’. It was thought that these two men were hired to assassinate the major and would soon after make their escape to America.
The initial reaction in the press can be gauged by The Times article entitled ‘ATROCIOUS ASSASSINATION’. Here Mahon is described as a concerned landlord seeking to save his tenants through assisted emigration and public works schemes. The press began to cast around for a specific motive that might have provoked the murder. The liberal London paper The Morning Chronicle pointed to the other, less visible form of murder, being carried out in Ireland - the eviction of starving tenants. Other observers pointed to the death toll on the Mahon ships that had sailed to Canada. Questions were raised as to whether the tenants had wanted to leave. John Ross Mahon, the land agent, and Thomas Morton, a middleman on the Strokestown Estate, defended the assisted emigration plan – read Thomas Morton’s Letter to Henry Sandford Pakenham-Mahon.
One thing seized upon by various commentators in England was the alleged denouncement of the Major from the altar by Strokestown’s Catholic priest, Father McDermott. In newspapers and in the House of Commons it was reported that Fr McDermott had said ‘Major Mahon is worse than Cromwell, and yet he lives’. McDermott issued an open letter ‘THE DENUNCIATION CALUMNY’ defending himself from the charges, and outlining in some detail the sorry scenes played out during evictions across the Mahon estate. The debate about his conduct waged on for some time and drew responses from several Irish Catholic bishops and English peers.
It's now time to bring together the evidence you have gathered about the motive for the murder of Major Mahon. Combined with a house visit, this evidence should give you plenty text and images for creating your newspaper or filling out your crime scene report.
Here is a modern CSI document for the handling of firearms used in a crime. It might help you to assess the firearm used to shoot Major Mahon.
You can create a newspaper clipping like that to the right by going to Fodey.com.
Enjoy your visit to the house!Next Step