Wednesday, April 01, 2009
In which I meet great-great-grandfather Bernard
The Strokestown Mansion
Back in Ireland – this is the last post on that country, and then I move on to Obama’s visit to Strasbourg, and France’s savage hamsters.
Our destination for St Patrick's Day (before that evening's festivities) was Strokestown, north of Roscommon. The out-of-the-way village was the seat of the Mahon family, whose head – Dennis Mahon – was one of the most infamous landlords during the years of the Irish Potato Famine; he was reviled for the thousands of evictions he ordered, and the shoddy “coffin ships” he chartered to take his former tenants to Canada. For these crimes, the story goes, he was assassinated by the members of an anti-British secret society in 1847. Because of his notoriety, the Irish government located the national Famine Museum on his former property. He also happened to have been my great-great-grandfather's landlord.
By the time Major Denis inherited the Strokestown estate property, years of mismanagement (by, among others, his lunatic uncle) had reduced the holdings to *only* 7,000 acres or so, which was deeply in debt. Remarkably, he had roughly 11,000 people - tenants and their families - living on his property.
Like everywhere else in Ireland, Mahon’s tenants were highly dependant on potatoes for their livelihood. In fact, on average, the Irish ate fourteen pounds of potatoes each every day. They had no choice – the country was so massively overpopulated that individual land plots were very small. The only food that was nutritious enough to support a family for a year that could be grown in such a compact space was the potato.
So, when the blight hit, famine was inevitable. In 1847 – the worst year – there were almost 100 percent crop failures across the land.
In Britain, where what meager relief efforts were organized, were done in a climate of ignorance and bigotry. The Irish, it was believed, were lazy, almost sub-human creatures, the blight their just desserts. Poster after poster in the museum showed images from British newspapers that depicted the Irish peasant as hideous, filthy, animal-like creatures, wallowing in muck with their pigs, living in bogs and squalor rather than try to better themselves. The British public were not inclined to exert themselves to help such creatures, who had probably brought this misery on their own heads. (Consistent with this attitude, Mahon’s Strokestown mansion was equipped with an underground tunnel that linked the stables to the servant’s wing of the main house, so that the Lord of the Manor need never have his eyes insulted by the sight of one of his Irish help. The kitchen came equipped with its own balustrade, from which the Lady of the House would drop the day’s menu to the floor below, so that she need never even speak, let alone share floor-space with, the bog hoppers in her employ).
The kitchen with balustrade above
For the anti-British secret societies – the Molly Maguires – of the day, Mahon was a symbol of heartless English exploitation. And so, one day in November 1847, as Mahon was returning from a meeting of the local Relief Committee, a man leapt out a ditch and shot him through the heart. Within minutes, the hillsides around Strokestown were alight with bonfires, celebrating the news.
Which brings me to Bernard Reynolds. He had been evicted months before Mahon was shot. But the killing ignited a propaganda war in the local press – according to the English Protestant press, he was an enlightened and kind landlord. For the Irish Catholics, he was the devil incarnate. The war of words raged in the papers, and in the pulpits.
One of the most powerful indictments against the dead Major was written by a local Bishop and published in a local newspaper. In heartrending detail he described the pain felt by those thrown from the only land they ever knew, to be bundled like so much cattle onto pestilent ships bound for a remote and frozen shore. To drive his point home, he published a list of every family that had been evicted from the Mahon lands, most of whom, he implied, had died in passage. It was duplicated as an enormous poster in the museum. And there, as the first name listing those evicted from the Cregga Township, was Bernard Reynolds – plus six.
I do not know where Bernard fits into this story. When Major Mahon was organizing his emigration scheme, he tried to encourage tenants of the “poorest and worst description” to leave, leaving more land in Ireland for “the better sort” of tenant. Many of those targeted for eviction were those who participated in the “rent strike” – a refusal to pay that actually predated the potato failure. Did Bernard refuse to capitulate even as his home was knocked down around him? Or was he, like many of his peers, forced by the Molly Maguires by threat of violence to participate in the strike? Or did he simply have no money?
I was surprised, at the end of my visit, to feel a certain fondness –or at least sympathy - for Bernard’s old nemesis. Major Dennis came to a poor end. His descendants didn’t fare much better – the final Mahon to live in Strokestown was reduced to closing off most of her mansion, living entirely in the drawing room amid tattered furniture, threadbare rugs, surrounded by cheap replicas of the artworks she had been forced to sell.
Bernard, meanwhile, did well in Canada. Miraculously, he and his entire family survived the cholera on the coffin ships. In Ontario, he eventually became a schoolteacher, and lived to see his children prosper in their new land. His grandson – my grandfather – managed to go on to university, an unimaginable achievement in mid-19th century Ireland. And one hundred and sixty two years later, his great-great-grandson would have the freedom to pop by his old haunts, on Ireland’s National Day of St Patrick’s, to see his name in his former landlord’s house.