2nd November 1847
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The events leading up to Mahon’s death epitomized much of what was wrong with pre-famine Ireland: the largely parasitical landlord class, the deep sectarianism that further divided rulers and ruled, and an underclass largely dependent on the potato and living on the margin of subsistence.

In 1845, on the eve of the Great Famine, Major Denis Mahon inherited the Strokestown estate (which was already heavily in debt to the tune of £30,000). The subletting of land on Mahon’s estate had led to chronic overcrowding – by 1846 there were 11,500 people on 11,000 acres of land. Not a man to embrace reform of the landed system, his merciless campaign of land clearance rapidly changed the face of Strokestown in the space of 12 months.

FAMINE REPORT  30 June 1846
“I cannot describe the alarm which is felt in this town in consequence of the high price to which provisions have risen this day. The people wear a sullen aspect and are giving expression to their discontent in a very menacing tone. Nothing is heard in the market but threats and murmurs. Potatoes are four shillings per hundred-weight – oatmeal, 17 shillings. In this state of things there is not employment nor relief fund. So in the name of God do something for us.”              Fr. Michael McDermott, Strokestown.

In the summer of 1847, Major Mahon paid £4,000 for the emigration of 1,432 of his tenants to Canada – a quarter of whom died at sea. Upon hearing this news, a large number of his tenants refused to go. Mahon responded by evicting 600 families (about 3,000 people). The struggle was compounded by what amounted to a war of religion and a complicated conflict between Mahon and Strokestown’s parish priest, who declared from the altar that Mahon was “worse than Cromwell”.

On the evening of 2 November 1847, Major Mahon was shot to death as he was returning home from a meeting of the Board of Guardians in Roscommon town. His murder was greeted with widespread jubilation; within hours, celebratory bonfires were lighted on neighbouring hills. Mahon’s murder made the headlines in England, prompting Queen Victoria to complain in her diary that the Irish “really... are a terrible people,” while her anti-landlord prime minister (in private, it must be said) declared the murders of landlords “no more atrocious” than the ejectments that led up to them”. The parish priest blamed the “infamous and inhuman cruelties” against his tenants and “the loss of their exiled relatives” for Mahon’s death. And his bishop, George Browne, likened the dead landlord to “a Nero or Caligula.”

Thanks to Ireland’s Famine Museum, which has been located in the former Mahon home in Strokestown since 1994, details of Major Denis Mahon's asassination are well known.


  • Yet even the worst of villains had friends, and apparently my 3rd great-uncle was one. On May 9th, 1848, Thomas Morton of Castlenode (whose mother-in-law was one Theodosia Mahon) wrote to Denis Mahon's son-in-law, Henry Sandford Pakenham-Mahon, the following letter:


    I have just seen in the Freeman's Journal a letter written by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Elphin to which he has annexed a list of tenants dispossessed by the late Major Mahon, and having resided at Castlenode all my life I cannot refrain from stating the truth relative to that townland and Newtown, the one adjoining it. Bishop Brown has been very [illegible] having named several persons who have held [illegible] land from the late Major Mahon or his predecessors. In justice to his memory I must add I know a great many of the people sent to America last year and often heard them express their gratitude and thankfulness to their landlord for enabling them to go. I enclose a list of the Castlenode and Newtown people as given in the Freeman's Journal with a statement of their present circumstances.

    I remain Sir

    your obedient servant

    Mr. Morton

    This letter is viewable at the Strokestown Learning Zone: http://www.strokestownlearningzone.com/index.php/resources/resource/86/…

    I wonder how differently Maj. Mahon might have been viewed, had the ship successfully brought all its passengers to Canada's shores? There is no excuse for his treatment of his tenants, surely, but that he should also be blamed for deaths at sea strikes me as unfair. Ah, well, history is rarely fair... but always fascinating. Thanks for all you do to keep the stories alive.


    Saturday 3rd October 2020 09:22PM
  • The popular indictment of Mahon and others of his ilk by Irish History should be understood by their pivotal role in the 'economics' of Coffin Ship Trade.

    From the 1820's Ship Owners had found it profitable to buy condemned hulks and by the simple expedient of re-naming and perhaps repainting, a dangerously rotten hull was 'reborn'.


    That ship would put out to sea under a fresh crew.

    If a man signed a Ships Articles, discovering later the ship was unseaworthy and refused to sail, he could be imprisoned for breech of contract.

    Shipping routinely put to sea with over-insured cargoes, vanished during a first storm, enriching the ship owners with little worry of subsequent investigation.

    This effective murder of crews was long ignored, indeed colluded at by a Parliament where shipping Magnates were over represented, in a time when the low social status of seamen ensured no Public outcry would follow their demise.

    Of course, if a lost ship had carried emigrants instead of a cargo, their relatives and friends would protest, and their protests began to put a pressure to react upon a still reluctant Parliament!


    Mahon's hiring of shipping at a lowest possible cost meant that he and other Landlords were complicit in an evil trade where profit was more important than people's lives.

    Mahon's or another Landlords profit was assurred when they cleared their lands of surplus tenants.

    A Shipowner's profit was assured when his vessel left port, whether it arrived safely or not.

    Even the Insurance Company made its profit on non-arrivals by 'accommodating' losses in the premiums charged.


    The only losers were of course being the Tenants and their families, brutalised and overworked in order to maintain their Landlord's Lifestyle

    Their lives were forfeit in a voyage that in so many ways resembled that earlier and vicious Trade in Slaves, where profit motive had also overwhelmed basic humanity and decency.


    Michael GA Dixon




    Michael Dixon

    Saturday 3rd October 2020 11:14PM
  • I clearly have more research to do!


    Saturday 3rd October 2020 11:28PM
  • Hi Diane

    We all have lots more research to accomplish, in order to discover and then better understand the unfolding of Historic Events.

    Recall the famous 'Ignore the lessons of History dooms you to repeat its mistakes'

    We should aim to understand that Past.

    While remembering that we can never undo any past wrongs that our Ancestors might have been 'guilty' of.


    They lived and died in different times.

    And no doubt, in most cases, did what they thought was Just.

    Even when they were, as we would see it, 'mistaken'!


    Of course their 'values scale' differed from ours, especially as their World View was grossly distorted by the Class System.

    Nonetheless they are Ours, and we are here because of they lived.

    If we all try to leave this World a slightly better place during our brief time here, then we have justified ourselves and all our Ancestors too.

    Even the most villainous ones!!


    Best Regards & Stay Safe during this Horrible Pandemic



    Michael Dixon

    Saturday 3rd October 2020 11:58PM
  • Thank you for this very interesting article, and a thank you to both Diane and Michael for a brilliant dialogue. I understood so much more from reading both of your posts. Research and learning are neverending.





    Sunday 4th October 2020 03:47AM
  • Sadly, my mother is a Mahon and we claim this man as kin in our family tree


    Sunday 8th November 2020 01:17AM
  • Hello, Cousin Annie ... I feel your pain! I have not traced Denis Mahon's ancestry to see where his line touches my family tree, but I'm sure the connection is there somewhere, since several generations of my ancestors -- including my third g-grandfather -- lived at Castlenode, a Mahon property.


    Sunday 8th November 2020 04:29AM
  • From "Emigrants & Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America" (Kerby A. Miller): "... Finally, between 1846 to 1855, landlords eager to clear their estates shipped over 50,000 former tenants and laborers across the Atlantic. Most so 'assisted' received only their fares, a minority got provisions as well, and a very few got some 'landing money.' Destitution and disease rendered these emigrants particularly 'miserable and helpless,' and their wretched appearance shocked North American port officials. For example, although Major Denis Mahon boasted that he had generously spent some £14,000 sending former tenants from Roscommon to Canada, over 25 percent died at sea and the rest arrived at Quebec in conditions resembling those aboard slave ships." 

    (In further answer to the above comment about why the blame for the deaths at sea might be placed on Mahon) From what I've read, it seems that most emigrants to North America during this period would have needed to supply their own food for the journey, and this is something an already-starving people could not do. So likely it was not at all unexpected that the Irish who were sent overseas in this way--already very badly weakened from malnutrition and disease, having no additional resources, and without any real option to refuse--would die and suffer in large numbers aboard the coffin ships of the Famine era. For many of the same reasons, these emigrants also struggled to provide for themselves abroad.

    A landlord's "clearing" of his estate via emigration could be viewed as expedience as much as it could kindness--tenants would not have to be forcibly removed and would be unable to return, and the landlord would meet his (likely) goals of consolidating landholdings in order to employ more profitable farming techniques and to avoid having to pay for the government-mandated "relief" given to the starving people who'd formerly inhabited and worked his land, many of them for generations.

    In the Famine era it was almost certainly better, however, to be given a shot at a new life in North America than to make it no further than the ditch at the edge of the estate before dying of disease and hunger... So in this way Mahon does seem much more "generous" than other landlords, and the tenants who survived the difficult journey to Canada would find reason, if only by comparison to worse examples, to feel grateful. 

    (This article lists £4,000 as the amount he spent and the book I quoted says £14,000 - not sure which is more accurate)

    Kat H

    Monday 22nd February 2021 02:23AM
  • I am afraid Kat that you have enumerated most of the contemporary and indeed subsequent reasons advanced by British Politicians and Whig Historians to justify British Government policies that allowed and compounded the horrors of mass starvation in Ireland to proceed unchecked.


    Regarding deaths at sea, if you place ill people in close confinement with other who are starving you will generally and geometrically increase deaths!

    Why, even that A + B = C was realised by the vilest breed of humanity seen on this planet, the Slave Traders.

    Although their method of mitigating disease in their ‘cargo’ is scarcely creditable to modern ears.

    They simply threw the ill or the weak overboard!


    Rather as the British Colonial Power threw the Irish Nation overboard during the Great Famine.

    By backing the Great Landlords with all the forces of the military against the most marginalised, those male and female landless agricultural labourers, who made up the pool of seasonal labour.

    Each Spailpín Fánach life precariously had depended on the pennies they earned as Migrant Labourers during the planting and harvest.

    Break that Cycle and you broke their lives.


    Today of course we simply cannot conceive of or understand the British Colonial mindset.

    Our lack of understanding is to our credit, rather than theirs, I may add.

    To routinely brutalise the population of their neighbouring Island, as they did, demonstrated unfathomable cruelty.

    A Sin against God.

    It also ran contrary to economic sense!

    A Sin against Mammon too, that they could more easily understand, but did not!


    Intriguingly a prosperous Ireland within a political Union would have calmed nationalist sentiment.

    But British Beggar thy Neighbour Economic Policies routinely destroyed any shoots of industrialisation in Ireland.

    Making Ireland poorer.

    Damning it to a dependence upon Agriculture.

    Reducing the majority to either 9 Month-at-Will Tenant Farmers or an aimless existence as depressed Day Labourer.


    This unfathomable cruelty without even a skein of rationality of course marks out an unusually sadistic and morally bankrupt nation, whose concepts of Superior Worth was aeons removed from the Superior Sort of Christianity they thought they professed.

    Their scale of values then were, and still are, topped by their monarchy, and by degrees descending to the most destitute Englishman.

    And by a greater remove to those captives of their British Empire.

    Those Captives measured in worth by an imposed Class System, but each infinitably of less worth than the poorest Englishman!


    A definition then of 'Englishman' might graciously include the Welsh and less graciously exclude Scottish Highlanders. 

    And women of all those nations were of course routinely ignored, despite a woman sitting on their throne!


    All this partiality of neglect fuelled a fervent desire to be rid of Britain and its Union!

    And of course that sentiment naturally targeted those Landlords and Land Agents within sight or reach.

    They were the local cogs of an Empire that ground Ireland’s People.

    Which of course sealed the fate of Dennis Mahon and many others.


    Poet Rudyard Kipling, born 20 years after the Great Irish Famine, wrote an explanation of the how the treatment wielded by Dennis Mahon and myriad others of like-mindset to their starving Tenants was not only tolerated but applauded by the British Government and their Upper Crust.

    Kipling’s 7 Stark Lines relieves me of a necessity to write 700 or 7000 Lines explaining the enormity of the British Empire’s Crimes Against Basic Humanity in a Famine-ridden Ireland to a modern Audience.

    You may ‘smell’ the smug assurance within these Lines of a People ‘destined’ to Rule through a combination of Military Might and a Shallow Conscience.


    “The White Man’s Burden”


    Take up the White Man’s burden–

    Send forth the best ye breed–

    Go, bind your sons to exile

    To serve your captives’ need;

    On fluttered folk and wild–

    Your new-caught sullen peoples,

    Half devil and half child.


    Certainly, that poem was written a half century later [1899] and addressed to the United States, urging them to seize colonial control of the Filipino people and their country.

    But it demonstrates the continued belief and willingness of Britain’s ‘Elite’ to snatch lands and wealth from peoples who were 'iinferior' or unable to resist.

    And having snatched those Nations from its native ‘Children’ there was no sense of a ‘parental responsibility’ in times of sickness and misfortunes, such as a Government of their own might demonstrate.


    The precise cause of the Potato Famine, Phytophthora Infestans fungus, was beyond human influence.

    The Great Hunger which followed was a result of human indifference and an imposed Landlord and Class System that put no value upon the ordinary Irish people.


    The Sentiment of the Starving bettering their condition by forced migration, or more likely dying in the that attempt, has a whiff of Ben Carson’s mis-speak.

    Remember, he announcing to a room packed with hundreds of federal workers that the Africans captured, sold and transported to America against their will had the same hopes and dreams as early immigrants!!.

    .As Homer Simpson would remark…. “Volunteering is for suckers. Did you know that volunteers don’t even get paid for the stuff they do?”


    To end upon a reconciliatory Note, I might quote William Makepeace Thackeray’s 'End Note' from his novel 'Barry Lyndon'.

    Although a change of monarch from German George to Famine Queen is needed: -


    "It was in the reign of [Queen Victoria] that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled, good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now."


    And might I suggest reading the harrowing lines of one of the several translation versions of the poem An Spailpín Fánach [Wandering Landless Labourer].

    This will explain their simple lives and desires, and finally burning rage.

    It was their community that bore the major share of famine deaths.

    Their simple life denied, their loved ones starved to death before them, those who endured famine and coffin ships bred a generational enmity and hatred that persists today.


    Although that Past is past, it must be remembered, lest history repeat itself at some future and unguarded moment.

    As Bonnie Greer drolly remarked, when Priti Sushil Patel invoked a new Famine to bring Ireland to heel during Brexit, “You don’t mess with the Irish!”.


    Michael GA Dixon

    Michael Dixon

    Monday 22nd February 2021 10:13PM
  • Thank you, Michael Dixon, for your contribution to this discussion. (My great-grandmother was a Dickson/Dixon, by the way.) Since yours may be the majority view on this matter, it's good to have it on the record.


    Tuesday 23rd February 2021 06:37PM
  • Hi Again Diane


    We Dixon’s all descend from Thomas Dicson 1247 – 1307.

    As Dickson’s / Dixon’s we are all Cousins of some degree.


    But even if discussed by Cousin’s, History can be is a contrary and many sided subject.

    Perhaps like Politics or Religions it ought to be avoided in Polite Society?

    Or at least come with an Over 18 Certificate?

    As Lucy Worsley remarks, Official History is often full of Officious Lies


    However, just like our Ancestors, we too eventually become History’s Frozen Prisoners.

    Meanwhile, in a manner of speaking, the fortunate and unfortunate of History are still alive in our DNA.

    Our care now for getting their story Right and looking after truth and justice in our Time might just wipe their collective Slate clean.


    Fond Regards Cousin

    And Stay Safe during this, The Year of the Covid Plague!



    Michael Dixon

    Tuesday 23rd February 2021 09:54PM

    Long before the coffin ships from Ireland plyed their vile trade the British were aware successful transport would occur if captains/owners were paid for live passengers at the end of the journey not passengers who embarked. Horrendous numbers died aboard and just after arrival of the second fleet of convicts to Australia at the end of the 18th century. Payment for arrival was introduced. What a disgrace the confin ship trade wasn't held to this standard, it made a tremendous improvement in the death rate, and that journey of course was much longer and the "passengers" confined to irons.




    Saturday 25th December 2021 01:41AM
  • My Martin family from Ballymaglavy, Co. Westmeath told me the family story

    about our ancestors seeing the sad and downtrodden evicted tenants of

    Mahon's estate as they walked along the Royal Canal to Mullingar and then Dublin

    and Liverpool.

    robert hepburn

    Thursday 19th October 2023 02:44AM
  • Earlier in this thread I mentioned that several generations of my family lived in Castlenode, described as "a 16-room mansion" connected to the Mahon estate. I recently visited Ireland for the first time (what a fabulous experience!!) and thought I would share with you this touching letter I was allowed to photograph at the National Library of Ireland. 

    The Quakers were heavily involved in famine relief in the 1840s as they were apparently trusted by all parties. The quaint language in the letter ("thee," thou," etc.) was typical for Quakers of that time. 

    At the time of this correspondence, my 2d great-granduncle, Thomas Morton, was either dead or dying. He was the man who wrote to the newspaper protesting the unfairness of the general portrayal of the fate of some of the tenants he personally knew who had been "assisted" to emigrate by Denis Mahon, as he knew some who had fared well and were grateful. At any rate, this interesting letter is addressed, apparently, to his daughter, Susanna Jane Maria Morton. And at the time she was only two or three years old! Isn't that an interesting mystery?

    Who was writing the Quakers pretending to be Miss Morton of Castlenode? Her mother, Sarah? Why would Sarah Morton use an alias? Were the times so dangerous? Or was it merely that widows of that era were supposed to shut themselves up in their homes and do nothing during their mourning period, and she could not bear to stand by, doing nothing, surrounded as she was by so much suffering? So she broke the "rules" of widowhood and wrote to the Quakers, hiding behind her little daughter's name.

    Note that food is only supposed to be given to young children or people who are ill. How unutterably sad. I imagine whichever Morton was doling out the supplies, this point would be stretched. After all, if you are hungry enough, you qualify as "ill" in most cases.PXL_20230914_113432878.jpg


    Thursday 19th October 2023 05:40AM

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