The Murder of Major Dennis Mahon 1847

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.

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  • 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:

    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