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At the height of the Irish Famine, now considered the greatest social disaster to strike nineteenth-century Europe, Anglo-Irish landlord Major Denis Mahon was assassinated as he drove his carriage through his property in County Roscommon. Mahon had already removed 3,000 of his 12,000 starving tenants by offering some passage to America aboard disease-ridden "coffin ships," giving others a pound or two to leave peaceably, and sending the sheriff to evict the rest. His murder sparked a sensation and drove many of the world's most powerful leaders, from the queen of England to the pope, to debate its meaning. Now, for the first time, award-winning journalist Peter Duffy tells the story of this assassination and its connection to the cataclysm that would forever change Ireland and America.
In a fading November light in 1847, the most desperate year in Irish history, an Anglo-Irish landlord named Denis Mahon-whose ancestral family demesne in County Roscommon tenanted 12,000 poor and mostly starving people-was shot and killed in a roadside ambush. Mahon was returning from a meeting to discuss funding for a workhouse, meant to provide sustenance to the victims of the potato blight-in return for work. Mahon's death has been a source of controversy ever since. Was it justified? Was Mahon himself committing slow mass murder of his tenants? Duffy (The Bielski Brothers) mounts an investigation, but more importantly, marshals his storytelling skills to render vividly the harsh realities and the alternately heartbreaking and appalling politics of the Great Famine. To Duffy's credit, his treatment is evenhanded. Yet he does not lose sight of the larger discussion that the blight engendered in Parliament, where powerful factions seized upon the crisis as an opportunity to persuade the Irish to change their ways-particularly, their loyalty to the Catholic Church. Duffy's effort falters some as he renders numbly the lengthy trial of the men accused of Mahon's murder. Now that peace is at hand between England and Ireland, the timing could not be better for this look back at a deadly blight and the failure of a powerful empire to manage the consequences. There is much here for all sides of the debate to learn. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Consent of Things
Periculum fortitudini evasi.
Fortitude has preserved me from danger.
—Mahon family motto
The very name Strokestown commemorates conflict. It is an anglicization of Ballynamully, which is derived from the Gaelic Irish language phrase meaning "the mouth of the ford of the strokes." Upon such a location on the town's river, warfare—strokes of battle—flared between rival groups of native clansmen, who, however, were reputed to use sticks to attack each other rather than more lethal weapons. Legend tells us that the Maol Mitchell, or Mulmitchell, family was the ruling authority over the vicinity from "the dawn of civilization," according to local historian Walter Jones. The Mulmitchells' principal rivals were the famed O'Conor clan, the high kings of Connacht. If the rivalry between the O'Conors and the Mulmitchells did not give the town its name, it lived up to it. Jones writes that the battles between the two families extended for generations.
The fights continued through the centuries when English rule, first introduced by the Anglo-Norman invasion in the twelfth century, was reducingthe power and influence of the Gaelic chieftains throughout Ireland. Jones reports that in the fifteenth century the O'Conors finally succeeded in defeating the Mulmitchells. After twenty years in exile in County Clare, the Mulmitchells commenced a campaign to dislodge the O'Conors from their former home. Forming an alliance with the followers of Maguire, the King of Fermanagh, the Mulmitchells' army marched upon their old castle, "breathing a vengeance deadly," according to a poem commemorating the event. The O'Conors learned of the impending strike and fled to a nearby fortification. Unaware of the deceit, the Mulmitchells and their allies torched the landmark with "a sheet of fire, like an Indian's pyre."
The Castle of O'Conor,
The chief of endless fame,
Soon hid its head
In mantle red
Of fierce and rushing flame.
But the chief of endless fame had left his infant son behind. The poem describes how the crowd watching the progress of the blaze heard the screams of the youngster "over the crackling din." A giant by the name of O'Murray was moved by the cries.
There was a warlike giant
Among the listening throng,
He gazed with face defiant
On the flames so bright and strong;
Then rushed into the castle,
And up the rocky stair;
But alas! Alas!—
He could not pass
To the burning infant there.
The walls were tottering under.
The flames were whirling around,
The walls went down in thunder,
And dashed him to the ground
Up in the burning chamber
For ever died that scream,
And the fire sprang out—
With a wilder shout,
A fiercer, ghastlier gleam.
The fire raged out of control, spreading throughout the countryside—"it glared o'er hill and hollow"—until, exhausted by its exertions, it "sank in gloom, with a whirling boom, and all was dark again."
By the sixteenth century, the castle's surroundings were occupied by an amalgam of descendants of native clans of old (the O'Conors and others) and of the Anglo-Normans (the Dillons and others), who, now referred to as the Old English, had long ago adopted the language, customs, and religion of the natives. Later that century, the Gaelic and Old English populations of Ireland, both Catholic, joined together against a new generation of invaders, the aggressive New English, Protestant colonizers of the Elizabethan age. But the carnage that occurred the following century, bringing additional victories for the great power to the east, signaled the final end of the rule of the Gaelic chiefs. In 1641 the native Irish and Old English led a bloody rising against the New English and Protestant establishment, the battles beginning in Ulster and spreading in a destructive wake southward. In 1649 Oliver Cromwell, whose Parliamentary forces had defeated the armies of King Charles I during the concurrent English Civil War, arrived in Ireland to aid his coreligionists—the Irish factions pledged loyalty to the king rather than the ferociously anti-Catholic Cromwell—and crush the resistance. His campaign of slaughter, which he led for just nine months before turning over control and returning home, would live forever in Irish infamy, an emblem of sectarian and national hatred. His forces achieved victory at Galway in May 1652.
The environs of County Roscommon, in the lush inland sector known as the Irish Midlands, were "pacified" in part by the Cromwellian forces led by Sir Charles Coote, who was implicated in atrocities against Catholic forces and cursed by his opponents as a "thrice-cruel butcher and human bloodsucker." Like Cromwellian soldiers throughout Ireland, Coote's men were rewarded for their success in battle with extensive tracts of land taken from "non-innocent" Catholics, an efficient way to ensure that military victory would take on the cast of permanence. One officer in Coote's army helped organize the distribution of the land in the vicinity of Bally-namully and throughout County Roscommon, emerging in the process as a prominent man of the new establishment. Nicholas Mahon was not a member of an English or Scottish family like many of his fellow servicemen, but was of impeccably Irish blood, a descendant of the ancient princes of Munster, according to family lore. He was probably a recent convert from Catholicism to Protestantism, and may have originally been a supporter of King Charles I, jumping sides when he saw that Cromwell was headed for victory. Scholar Susan Hood, who has studied the area's deeds from the 1650s, believes that Mahon, though recorded as the principal man of standing in an area not far from Ballynamully, was "not necessarily a landowner" in the years immediately following the conquest, meaning that he had not received a land grant. At least not yet.
In 1660 the monarchy was restored to power, and Mahon, like many of his station, duly changed his allegiances and pledged loyalty to Charles II. His position in society was preserved; indeed, it was enhanced. He enthusiastically took to cementing the king's rule in the region, serving as a collector of . . .
Excerpted from The Killing of Major Denis Mahon by Peter Duffy Copyright © 2007 by Peter Duffy. Excerpted by permission.
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