The murder of Major Mahon, Strokestown, County Roscommon, 1847

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Reviews, The Famine, Volume 17

The murder of Major Mahon, Strokestown, County Roscommon, 1847
Padraig Vesey
(Four Courts Press, Maynooth Studies in Local History, €9.95)
ISBN 9781846821196

In opening, the author briefly surveys some previous accounts of the Mahon murder, including Robert Scally’s The end of hidden Ireland, of which he says: ‘The introduction to Scally’s book reflects an anti-Unionist and anti-Protestant viewpoint and is unduly dependant on an unreliable secondary source’. What can this mean? Scally’s footnotes to his introduction cite Corkery’s Hidden Ireland, Carleton’s Traits and stories, and Eilish Ellis’s ‘Letters from the Quit Rent Office’ in Analecta Hibernica (1960). Which of these is the ‘unreliable secondary source’?
Seeking, presumably, to rectify Scally’s bias, Vesey offers an essentially monochromatic picture of Denis Mahon as a landlord who ‘brought a new style of management to the Strokestown [sic] and in the process came up against tenants who were opposed to change’. The second half of this thesis, unfortunately, dies of want in the ditch (like the evicted tenants). Vesey illuminates the new style through the correspondence between Major Mahon and his agent, John Ross Mahon. They agreed on a statement of ‘fact’—too many people, paying too little rent, lived on the estate. More serious was their commitment to the fundamental dogma that the rights of property were sacrosanct and inviolable. Mahon’s guiding light was the determination ‘to let nobody interfere with what I do with regard to my property’.
Vesey’s account of the evictions and assisted emigration from the Strokestown estate is curiously bloodless. The reader leaves down this book without the slightest idea of the fate of the 3,006 people (Bishop Brown’s calculation in April 1848) or 1,875 people (John Ross Mahon’s figures to December 1847) who disappeared. Where did they go? What happened to them? Typical of Vesey’s approach is this critique of the bishop: ‘he drew no distinction between those who were evicted, those who availed of the emigration scheme and those who left the farms voluntarily and chose to remain in Ireland. For him they were all forced off the land.’ Yet weren’t they?
The two central chapters in this book concern first the murder and then the public controversy that followed. Although Vesey tells the story of the murder primarily from the police reports and press accounts of the several trials (three men were hanged and two more were transported), he is at pains to allege that the real culprit was Andrew Connor, putative leader of the Molly Maguires and chief conspirator in the murder of Mahon.
This accusation rests in part on the testimony from John Hestor, but to a far greater extent on a letter to J. R. Mahon from a tenant, Luke Murray. The letter was written in December 1847, several weeks after the murder and while Strokestown was under police and military occupation under the Coercion Act, considerations which Vesey acknowledges but downplays in examining the reliability of the trial witnesses. Did Murray act disinterestedly, or was he seeking to curry favour with his landlord? Vesey quotes him as relating, and relishing, his role in preventing Andrew Connor and his brothers, John and Martin, from renting land from another landlord after their eviction from Strokestown. It cannot be coincidence that Murray’s nephew had been transported on foot of a conviction resulting from a complaint by the Connors. Plainly, Murray bore a grudge against Andrew Connor. Given Vesey’s own material, the clear inference of a Murray–Connor feud casts a jaundiced light on the reliability of his source.
With a staunch defence of Mahon’s property rights and an unconvincing treatment of his own question—‘were the convictions sound?’—under his belt, Vesey turns to what appears to be his main interest in the whole affair, the controversy in the press and parliament after the murder. The core of his argument is that Mahon fell victim to an ‘altar denunciation’ by Fr Michael McDermott, that the priest’s ‘congregation would for most part be composed of unsophisticated and semi-literate people . . . unable to understand the subtle verbal distinctions of a preacher’, and that, therefore, Andrew Connor and company would believe that ‘the crime would receive public endorsement’. None of these assertions can bear the weight placed upon them. As Vesey acknowledges, there is ‘no direct evidence’ that McDermott urged, however obscurely or subtly, the murder of Mahon. The naivety ascribed to Connor—otherwise allegedly a master of conspiracy and escape—beggars belief and is, moreover, belied by trial testimony to Connor’s caution before the murder.
Vesey’s résumé of the controversy between Irish clergy and the English press and landowning aristocracy makes for interesting reading. Putting to one side the predictable thunderings of The Times and focusing instead upon the English Catholic grandees, Vesey throws a revealing light on the nexus where class, nationality and religion meet, showing quite conclusively that blood is thicker than altar wine. In this otherwise excellent series Padraig Vesey’s book is disappointing, and not helped by a proliferation of typos, misprints and broken sentences.

Michael Quigley was a founder of and historian for the Canadian lobby group Action Grosse Ile.

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