First look: Behind the scenes at the new National Famine Museum

When local businessman Jim Callery found the 1846 petition from the tenants of Cloonahee, Co Roscommon, to the then landlord of Strokestown, Major Denis Mahon, he immediately realised that he had burst the Famine’s time capsule.

Our families are really and truly suffering in our presence and we cannot much longer withstand their cries for food,” he read. “We have no food for them, our potatoes are rotten and we have no grain.”

Jim Callery is from Cloonahee. The voices of his peoples’ ancestors spoke to him across the years in that dusty room in Strokestown House where old papers were stacked floor to ceiling. He had acquired the house almost by accident, when looking to buy land to store trucks. But in 1979, as he stood with the Cloonahee petition in his hand, he committed then and there to preserving the 18th century Palladian mansion and the largest archive of Famine-related history in existence.

And that is where the story of the National Famine Museum began.

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Bronze shoes are used along the National Famine Way route

They opened the doors of the original National Famine Museum in Strokestown in 1994 – but on June 15 a totally revamped museum will reopen to the public, following a €5m-plus overhaul, funded by a Fáilte Ireland capital grant. The new cafe has a glorious view of Strokestown’s famous woodland walk with its 300-year-old oak trees, while the mansion itself has benefitted from over €1m in investment from Jim Callery’s Westward Holdings.

It is testament to the importance of the museum, and the massive significance of the nation-defining event it catalogs, that Taoiseach Micheál Martin will speak at Strokestown later today – National Famine Commemoration Day, 2022.

He will visit the new museum which now offers an immersive experience (reimagined by the Tandem company which designed the Titanic Belfast attraction). There he will be able to follow characters’ lives through the different zones of the exhibit, and will hear excerpts of the documents voiced by actors – including the voice of Mahon the landlord, consumed with worry by the heavily indebted estate he inherited in 1845.

The central theme of the new museum is “parallel lives”, explains Emma O’Toole, collections and interpretations manager with the Irish Heritage Trust, which has managed the property since 2015.

“We have the house, the landlord’s perspective. Then we have the perspective of the tenants. What’s unique about Strokestown is that we have both.”

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Emma O’Toole of the Irish Heritage Trust

The museum stresses the contrast between those two lives. A recipe for lobster soup – “the best soop I ever saw” – is lovingly transcribed by one of the landlord’s family. Facing it is the landlord’s grim instruction to provide meat on Christmas Day to “as many as are living” from a list of tenants

The name Paddy Kenny is crossed out and “DEAD, December 22” is written beside it.

“That’s probably the only place those names were ever written down,” muses curator and archivist Martin Fagan.

Throughout the Famine years, rents were still exacted from the estate, and those who couldn’t pay might face eviction or the confiscation of the few crops they had managed to grow. One of the saddest petitions is from a group of men in 1848, begging to keep their own “little crops” so they could feed their families.

There is, however, a burning determination in the team who put this interpretation of the Famine together – Emma O’Toole, Martin Fagan, as well as a team of Irish and international academic advisors – that the story has many shades between black and white .

There were plenty of middle men between landlord and tenant; plenty of victims and victims and vultures who feasted happily on their misfortunes. A particularly troubling document from 1853 shows a middle man called George Walpole explaining he wants to evict “the widow Gardiner”, because he wants her house for his horse.

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The Great Famine statues on Custom House Quay in the Dublin Docklands

In all, 3,006 tenants were evicted from their homes on the Strokestown estate during the Famine, and this pattern was repeated all over the country. Between 1845 and 1851 alone, the exhibition tells us, it is estimated that 800,00 people died and a million more emigrated.

The plan to save Denis Mahon’s Strokestown estate from financial ruin was initially hatched by Mahon’s cousin John Ross Mahon, of the Dublin firm of Guinness and Mahon – the future bankers.

It involved clearing the land of its “worst” tenants, and carting them off to North America.

Ships were arranged and 1,490 people were instructed to walk the 165km along the Royal Canal to Dublin. You can follow their footsteps along the National Famine Way from Strokestown to where they took ship, near where the EPIC museum now stands on Dublin’s docks.

Cholera and typhus broke out in the cramped quarters of the coffin ships crossing the Atlantic – and the vessels were forced to anchor off Grosse Isle, Canada to quarantine. Only half the people who boarded survived.

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Famine walkers re-enact an eviction scene by Bailiff John Robinson when 1,490 tenants were led to coffin ships in Dublin from Strokestown in 1847. Photo: Brian Farrell

A word of the all this reached Strokestown and was a factor leading to the assassination of Major Mahon in November 1847, for which two local men were hanged—while the probable “mastermind”, Andrew Conor, escaped to Western Canada.

The gun reputedly used to kill Mahon was passed down as an heirloom and is now here on display.

The museum experience ends with a space to make your own response to the exhibition. I leave one question: are the empty, green pastures that are synonymous with Ireland the result of death and forced emigration?

I don’t know the answer – but that’s fine, Emma O’Toole tells me.

“We want you to come out of this museum with more questions than answers,” she says.

Booking information for the new National Famine Museum, which reopens on June 15, is at strokstownpark.ie. The gardens and woodland walk at Strokestown are already open to the public from 10.30am to 4.30pm, Wednesday to Sunday

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