THE Great Famine is on my mind this week, mostly because my own awareness was heightened a few weeks ago when I received an invitation to the screening of The Forgotten Famine People of the Queen’s County (1845-1850). This is the Portlaoise College transition year’s documentary on the Famine.
The screening took place in a packed Dunamaise theatre on Wednesday 7 May. It was a fantastic event, with great credit due to all at Portlaoise College. And for my money, I thought the students, with their infectious enthusiasm for the project, were the stars.
But I wonder if you also knew that Sunday 11 May was designated as the day of National Famine Commemoration by the committee of the same name. Jimmy Deenihan, TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and chairman of the National Famine Commemoration Committee, had asked people to observe a minute’s silence on the day as a mark of respect to those who died in the Famine. Schools, also, were called on to observe a minute’s silence on Friday 9 May.
The venue chosen for this year’s national commemoration was Strokestown Park House, Co Roscommon. A visit to Strokestown Park House has been on my to-do list for a while now. Among other attractions, the Irish National Famine Museum was established here in 1994.
The next question, inevitably – is there a Laois connection to Strokestown Park House? Well, believe it or not, there is. Admittedly, you have to go back quite a long way to make the connection, back to 1687 in fact. In that year, Honora Boyle entered into the second of her three marriages. Honora was one of the daughters of our old friend Archbishop Michael Boyle.
Archbishop Boyle crops up with regularity in the ancestry of the de Vescis of Abbeyleix, where his granddaughter, Mary Muschamp, married sir Thomas Vesey. It was through her that much of the de Vesci fortune derived.
Archbishop Boyle’s daughter Honora, on the occasion of this second marriage, married Francis Cuffe. In order to connect this union to Strokestown Park House, we have to look a little closer at the evolution of this estate.
The website for Strokestown Park House will tell you that the estate was home to the Pakenham Mahon family. To give you an idea of its relative importance, the estate, in the 1870s covered about 27,000 acres.
The Mahon element goes way back. Laterally, they were titled baron Hartland, though that title died out with the death of the Rev Maurice, third baron Hartland, in 1845.
On Rev Maurice’s death, a cousin, major Denis Mahon, entered the picture, if only briefly. His clearance efforts on the estate didn’t go down too well locally and that was probably contributory to his murder in 1847. That murder sent shock waves through the landlord community in Ireland and beyond.
I suppose you could call it a twist of fate, whereby Grace Catherine Mahon, daughter of the murdered major Denis Mahon and heiress to the estate, provides the final connection back to Laois. Grace married Henry Sandford Pakenham, whose great-grandfather Thomas, first Baron Longford, was married to Elizabeth Cuffe – a great-granddaughter of Archbishop Michael Boyle, and thereby a cousin of the de Vescis.
So what does all this mean? Well, in essence, it means that when Archbishop Michael Boyle died, his property holdings were divided in all manner of ways. But part of the division became known as the Longford de Vesci estate, the unravelling of which will have to wait for another day.
In exploring Strokestown Park House, I’m not sure if Jimmy Deenihan’s minute’s silence was meant to include murdered landlords. Nonetheless, major Denis Mahon, who was murdered as he left a meeting in Roscommon town, was certainly a victim of the times
Further examination is in prospect before I finally get to cross Strokestown Park House off my to-do list.