The Execution of Landlord Denis Mahon

Stokestown House, County Roscommon

Irish Landlord Major Denis Mahon, owner of Stokestown House in County Roscommon, was shot to death in 1847 while driving his carriage four miles from his home.  Within an hour of the shooting, bonfires lit by the tenants of his property dotted the hills of his 11,000 acre (28 village) estate.  Why were these signal fires lit?  Presumably to spread the words that the hated landlord had been killed – a hollow (perhaps Pyrrhic) victory for those thousands of starving tenants who had managed thus far to avoid eviction or forced emigration since such evictions continued after his death.

Journalist Peter Duffy* maps out what led up to the shooting through an exhaustive examination of contemporary sources.  Unfortunately, he also does backflips at times to find in Mahon’s eviction orders a hint of remorse or regret.  Duffy writes of the ‘churnings of [Mahon’s] conscience’, noting that ‘it is hard to imagine that [Mahon] did not have qualms about his [eviction] decision.’  As much as I can appreciate Mr. Duffy’s need to find some redeeming qualities in the murdered man, the evidence simply does not support his kindhearted conclusions.

Here are the facts:

– Mahon spent much of the worst months of the Famine comfortably ensconced in London’s Claridges Hotel, leaving day-to-day control of his estate (and the fate of his 11,000 tenants) in the hands of his estate manager.

– When it became clear that revenues from his starving tenants wouldn’t continue to support his lavish lifestyle, Mahon ordered mass evictions so that his property’s tillage land could be converted to pasture – a move considered essential if the estate was to continue to be bled dry.

– Mahon’s estate agent was well aware of the wretched state of the tenants he ordered from their homes.  Three decades later he recalled, ‘of course, they were all absolutely starving’.*   As evidence of his compassion, he told authorities that he sometimes allowed tenants evicted by his ruffian crowbar brigades (see an earlier post on this practice) to keep part of the thatch from their destroyed homes so that it could be used to cover the ditches where they would huddle after eviction!

– Mahon initially proposed spending 24,000 pounds to send thousands of his tenants to America.  When it came time to pay, he had second thoughts, opting instead to spend only a few thousand on the cheapest passage possible – to Canada .  Mahon personally negotiated low rates with Liverpool’s least reputable shipping agents.  The results were  foreseeable as the death rate on Mahon’s coffin ships exceeded 50% – a staggering statistic.  The Times of London reported that ‘the Black Hole of Calcutta was a mercy compared to the holds of these vessels’.   Dr. Douglas, the heroic physician charged with overseeing medical services at Canada’s Grosse Isle quarantine station, specifically named Mahon as being responsible for sending his way ‘the most wretched, sickly, miserable beings I ever witnessed.’*

Mahon’s execution was greeted with outrage in England and fear on the part of Irish landlords who fled the country to avoid a similar fate.  Their fear was well-founded as, within a week of his death,  four more Irish landlord were shot.  Two men were eventually hanged for the Mahon killing.

Regrettably, the ‘clearance’ policies implemented by Mahon continued after his death with chilling results:  although Ireland as a whole lost 1/3 of her people to death, emigration and disease during the Famine years, the Mahon estate lost 50%.  And the efficacy of Mahon’s policies?  Well, if the goal was profitability and nothing else, his reasoning was spot on for unlike the majority of Irish landlords who found themselves bankrupt or close to it after the Famine, Mahon’s descendants thrived and were able to double the size of the estate (from 11,000 acres to over 26,000).

One final note:  Ireland’s Famine Museum is located on the Stokestown estate.

* The Killing of Major Denis Mahon by Peter Duffy (Harper Collins, 2007)


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