Strokestown, 1847. A single shot from a blunderbuss echoed into the Roscommon skies. The lead slugs pounded into Major Dennis Mahon’s chest as he slumped into the seat of his carriage and died instantly. Set against the backdrop of Black ’47, the worst year of the Great Famine, the major’s murder sent shockwaves across Ireland. Although it was barely two years since he had inherited the Strokestown estate, he was widely, if a little unfairly, reviled for his leading role in the infamous ‘coffin ships’ tragedy.
The story of Major Mahon’s assassination 170 years ago is just one of dozens of tales told as one journeys through the labyrinths of Strokestown House, the substantial Palladian winged mansion in County Roscommon where he once lived. As well as being home to the Irish National Famine Museum, the house and its gorgeous gardens form one of the leading cultural attractions in Connaught.
Earlier this month the entire Strokestown project received perhaps the ultimate accolade when Jim Callery, its long-standing owner and principal decision-maker, was awarded the prestigious 2017 Europa Nostra Award from the European Union for his dedicated service to heritage preservation.
Now aged 82, Jim Callery purchased Strokestown at auction in 1979 from Olive Pakenham Mahon, a great-granddaughter of Major Mahon. Her ancestors had owned Strokestown since the late 17th century. In 1845, the heavily indebted estate was inherited by the luckless major on the death of a cousin. During the early stages of the famine, he acted with Christian charity, distributing Indian corn to the hungry, serving on the local famine-relief committee and establishing a soup kitchen that served nearly 3000 people daily.
However, advised by an agent with a harder heart, he subsequently consented to the clearance of 3,000 of his 12,000 tenants, including some of Jim Callery’s ancestors.
1,490 tenants took part in a deeply flawed emigration plan, sponsored by Major Mahon, which resulted in one of the most shocking events of that grim era. The tenants walked the Royal Canal to Dublin, sailed to Liverpool and then boarded a fleet of four ships chartered by Mahon to carry them to North America.
Unfortunately, the ships were riddled with cholera. By the time these aptly named ‘coffin ships’ were finally permitted to dock at Grosse-Île, an island near Quebec, 700 of Mahon’s tenants were dead. The island’s medical superintendent described the survivors as ‘without exception, the most wretched, sickly, miserable beings I ever witnessed.’
When Mahon heard the news, he anticipated the worst and ordered a six-barrel pistol from his gunsmith in Dublin. He stopped attending meetings of the Strokestown Relief Committee, even when the government ordered his soup kitchen to wind down. A public row with the parish priest further alienated him so that the notion of his murder became a question of not ‘if’ but ‘when’.
His assassins struck just as his carriage was rattling through Four Mile House on the way to Roscommon. His companions later swore that his sole topic of conversation on the journey was how to resolve the crisis of the poor. Two men subsequently went to the gallows for their alleged role in the murder.
Major Mahon’s only daughter and sole heiress, Grace, fulfilled her vowed to never set foot in Strokestown again. One might have expected the Mahon connection to end at this point but the property passed to Grace’s son Harry and then to Harry’s daughter Olive who sold it to Jim Callery. The powerful sense of history is reinforced by the fact that Olive attended Queen Victoria’s funeral in her youth.
Raised as a farmer, the resourceful Mr Callery opened Strokestown’s first filling station in the 1960s and began selling both cars and tractors. In 1968 he became a Chrysler dealer and eight years later he scored a lucrative contract to become the main distributor for Scania trucks in Ireland. Over forty years later, his extensive truck depot runs along one side of the Strokestown estate, visible from a gazebo in the six-acre walled garden where the Mahon’s took tea in the Victorian Age.
Such a vista inspires nothing but pride in John O’Driscoll, Strokestown’s erudite General Manager, who started out as the head gardener nearly 20 years ago. He rightly accredits those Scania trucks with having enabled Mr Callery to pump several million into making Strokestown what it is today. This included the restoration and re-roofing of the main house, originally built in 1740, possibly by Richard Cassells, as well as its fantastic vaulted stables and galleried kitchen. He also paid for the landscaping and plantation of the gardens and surrounding demesne which includes one of the longest herbaceous borders in Europe, a 100-acre walled deer park and a one kilometre trail through mature woodlands.
Perhaps the most captivating part of the Strokestown experience is the house itself. The vast mansion belies a deceptively intimate interior in which many rooms are left as if the Mahons have simply nipped out to a tea party and will be back at any moment. ‘Delightfully dilapidated’ opined one recent visitor. Indeed, little has changed since the house doubled as a convincing location for Pat Murphy’s award-winning period movie ‘Anne Devlin’ over thirty years ago.
Viewable by guided tour only, this acutely atmospheric house provides an exceptionally rich and poignant insight into the life of its former occupants – a library that doubled as a ballroom, a bedroom in which nine Labradors once slept, a gigantic kitchen to satiate ‘Downton Abbey’ enthusiasts, corridors lined with a zillion books and pictures of battles past, ancestors and impressive nudes.
Much of this is a legacy of the charismatic Harry Pakenham Mahon, son of Grace, father of Olive, who enjoyed a penchant for erotic art and planted various bamboo, walnut and gingko trees in the garden. His father was a kinsman of the earls of Longford, as well as the Duke of Wellington, whose chiselled portrait stares out from many a wall.
Aided by an archive of over 55,000 documents, the multi-roomed Famine Museum provides extensive details on subjects ranging from the Mahon family history to the scientific origins of the potato blight to an examination of contemporary famines around the world. It comes as no surprise that Jim Callery and his daughter Caroilin are among the most vocal supporters of the Irish Naval Service’s work in the Mediterranean; the service has been credited with saving over 15,000 migrants since May 2015.
Visitors can also avail of a café in the courtyard, as well as a gift shop.
Paying for the upkeep of all this has put a massive dent in the Callery coffers but Jim Callery is the first to admit it never made financial sense. However, there was good news for the family in October 2015 when the Taoiseach Enda Kenny declared that Strokestown Park and the National Famine Museum would be operated by the Irish Heritage Trust until 2025. The trust also runs Fota House in Co Cork and Johnstown Castle in Co Wexford.
As Jim Callery gradually eases himself into the back seat, the Europa Nostra award is a timely nod towards his considerable efforts at preserving an extraordinary story that might otherwise have vanished from this land.