Major Denis Mahon, the landlord of Strokestown Park House, was assassinated on November 2nd 1847. He was the first and most high profile Irish landlord to be murdered during the Great Famine.
The assassination of Major Denis Mahon is vividly recounted by Ciarán Reilly in Strokestown and the Great Irish Famine (2014):
The summer months of 1847 were relatively calm at Strokestown and there does not appear to have been any immediate backlash against the assisted emigration scheme [of the 1,490] or continued clearances. By the end of August though, relations between landlord and tenants were deteriorating rapidly. Moreover, once cordial relations between Major Denis Mahon and Revd Michael McDermott, parish priest of Strokestown, were irrevocably strained. The fallout was to have an immediate and lasting effect on the people of Roscommon. Although the facts surrounding the murder of Major Denis Mahon have been examined by a number of historians to date, it is necessary nonetheless to recount them briefly here. The murder plan had been hatched in several locations, but in the townlands of Dooherty, Leitrim, and Carnalasson there was particular antipathy towards Mahon for the eviction notices that were served in early Autumn 1847.
On 2 November 1847, as he returned from a meeting of the Roscommon Board of Guardians, where ironically he had gone to seek relief for his tenants, Major Denis Mahon was shot dead near the townland of Dooherty, an area quickly dubbed the “Khyber Pass”. Mahon’s murder was the most high-profile assassination of the Famine period and the political fallout from the murder made it the most sensational. Within days, the murder came to define the misgovernment of Ireland and the event was being discussed across the world. What followed was a long period of debate, accusation, and controversy largely played out on religious grounds. Strokestown became synonymous with eviction, and heated exchanges occurred within the House of Commons and in the provincial, national and international press. (79-80).
Ciarán Reilly also notes that when news trickled back to Strokestown about the devastating effects of the trans-Atlantic crossing and very high death toll amongst the 1,490 assisted emigrants on board the Virginius and Naomi, “Major Mahon’s fate was effectively sealed” (84). The disaster that befell the 1,490 was transmitted in press accounts from Canada to Ireland in the late summer and early autumn of 1847. More specifically, it was widely though incorrectly reported in a letter from Kingston, Ontario entitled “The Ship Fever in Canada” (August 10, 1847) that “of the crew of the Virginius but three are left, the captain and officers having died with the rest, and it is seriously contemplated to scuttle the ship and sink her for a while, as the only means of purifying her from the infection which she has absorbed – it is said that every one has abandoned her at Grosse Isle”. Indeed, in her classic study The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845-9 (1962), Cecil Woodham-Smith cites the fate of the Virginius passengers as a significant factor in Major Mahon’s assassination (225-226). According to Woodham-Smith:
“The legend in the west of Ireland is that ‘coffin ships’ were chartered, when one foundered, and all aboard were lost, Major Mahon was shot by the lover of a girl who had been drowned. In fact the ship did not founder, although she was forced to put back to port in distress; both ships [Virginius and Naomi] eventually reached Quebec, but in a very bad state. In one vessel [Virginius] 268 persons were alleged to have died at sea. It must be remembered that the emigrants were poor, unsophisticated people, unaccustomed to observe any rules of hygiene, and typhus had raged during the voyage”.
Ultimately, Denis Mahon was shot in his carriage returning from a Famine relief meeting in the company of his physician Dr Terence Shanley. The most likely figure to have pulled the trigger was Andrew Connor, who was part of what Ciarán Reilly describes as “a notorious agrarian conspiracy from Graffogue at the foot of Sliabh Bawn mountain” (97). Major Mahon “was shot in the chest and died instantly”, Reilly adds. “The news of his death quickly spread across Roscommon and was widely celebrated: ‘bonfires were seen to be on the hills for many miles extent’”.
Several people were arrested, tried, and executed for the murder of Major Mahon. The most likely culprit, though, Andrew Connor, escaped to Canada. He followed in the footsteps of the 1,490 emigrants first to Montreal and then to Port Robinson, Ontario, where he was last sighted, in the Niagara region in which many Strokestown emigrants had resettled to help dig the Welland Canal. From there, Andrew Connor was tracked by Canadian and Irish sheriffs, but disappeared without a trace.
As for Major Denis Mahon, he was buried in the ruined mausoleum near Strokestown Park House. Yet his memory lived on in Irish folklore. Indeed, he was recalled decades later by name in the National Folklore Commission’s The Schools’ Collection (Volume 0253, p. 300), as a ghostly figure riding “in a coach drawn by four headless horses”.
You can read the folk memory here:
Dr Jason King is academic coordinator for the Irish Heritage Trust. He has previously taught at NUI Galway, the University of Limerick, the Université de Montréal, Concordia University, NUI Maynooth, and NUI Cork.
He specializes in Great Irish Famine digital content: