Journalist Duffy (The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews, and Built a Village in the Forest, 2003) recounts the story of the “Strokestown Massacre,” offering a vivid account of the Great Irish Famine along the way.
Murdered by starving tenants as he drove a horse-drawn carriage through his blighted property, Major Denis Mahon soon became both an international symbol of landlord cruelty and an example of the fate that could befall those who grossly mishandled estates in a crisis. Duffy ably demonstrates how a series of debacles, both inside and outside Mahon’s home county of Roscommon, led to the murder. The repeated failures of the all-important potato crop added a greater strain to the relationship between poor Catholics and the wealthy, land-owning Anglo-Irish who governed them. Further, a breakdown in governmental aid and a lack of decisive action in Parliament contributed to this climate of hatred. Duffy asserts that Mahon initially put forth a well-meaning effort to help his troubled tenants, paying for many of them to emigrate to America aboard what would soon be known as “coffin ships.” The acrimony between the tenants and their wealthy Protestant landlords was hardly mollified by the local Catholic clergy, who sided squarely with the ill-fed masses who formed the most desperate elements of their faithful. For her part, Queen Victoria took the murder as further proof that the starving Irish were unworthy of her aid, and her deplorable diary entries reflect the most baffling kind of governmental malfeasance—“really they are terrible people…it is a constant source of anxiety & annoyance.” Many readers will be distressed by the accounts of such large-scale neglect of so many citizens as they were turned out of their shacks for nonpayment of rent. While Duffy occasionally goes into excessive detail about the particulars of the trial, his exploration into this devastating period in Irish history is a scrupulously researched and well-presented record.
Capably transforms one of the bleakest episodes in modern history into an instructive account of events that have lasting repercussions to this day.