Major Denis Mahon’s murder

Major Denis Mahon portrait, owner of
the Mahon Estate, where Strokestown
is and where our Connellys came from.

There was a theory put out by a Connelly researcher that the reason Dennis Connelly had to leave Ireland when he did was because he was somehow involved in the murder of Major Denis Mahon.

I wanted to see if it was possibly true, so I found a book that had been written about the subject, the killing of Major Denis Mahon, by Peter Duffy. I highly recommend it as a read.

In the 1700s an English writer by the name of Arthur Young was touring Ireland. When he came to Strokestown and the Mahon Estate his description of the land was “flat and featureless, due to the sheep grazing,  having a general atmosphere of being dreary and cheerless. The people were not industrious or better housed. They lived on potatoes, milk and butter. There were few cows, pigs are not allowed, poultry was tolerated. To earn a bit of coin the men dug turf, planted potatoes and work for their landlord, while the women spun.” But on the whole he said the land was deemed tolerable. Land was divided up the old fashioned way on the Mahon estate, 2-300 acres would hold anywhere from 10-15 families. Leased and sub-leased. There were many very small plots of land for a family to survive on. In actual fact the situation was not good, and in time only worsened.

It was in the early 1800s that the Mahon estate was poised on the brink of disaster. Another English writer, Edward Wakefield, visiting the estate in 1809, described the area “I…found everywhere, cabins of the most wretched aspect, infamous stone roads, very minute divisions of land, and  a superabundant but miserable population.” Unlike the author Young he did not see any beauty in the land and in his eyes no estate in his travels represented such a “scene of desolation,” as that of the Mahon estate.

There is much that has already been written about the politics, and consequences of the famine. Too much to go into here, but it was the winter of 1846-47 during the famine that changed Strokestown’s course forever. Major Mahon was preparing to go to England for the hard winter, leaving his land agent John Ross Mahon (unrelated) to handle the estate. He was a hard-hearted, penny-pinching, no nonsense advocate for his clients. In Strokestown he is remembered as a ‘very cruel man’.  He set up an office in Strokestown to oversee the handling of the estate and in looking over the property, he later testified that “…of course they were absolutely starving…It saw the impossibility, not only of rent being paid, but of the people living.”

His plan was to remove two thirds of the tenants and let the remaining third expand their holdings and grow profitable crops. Subsidized emigration was his answer to the removal of the two thirds. The Major was against a major eviction of the tenants, and the Mahon family was not in any kind of financial condition to pay for the tenants transport out of the country.

But by early spring of 1847 he capitulated on the removal issue. We know that our ancestor Dennis Connelly arrived at the port of New York in May of 1847, because his declaration of intent tells us so. This means that sometime in April is when, at least he, packed up to go to America. It is unclear to us if the whole family left at the same time, because we can find no passenger lists with the Connelly’s on them. This does mean that at least Dennis was not one of the 1000 who were sent to Canada on the ‘coffin ships‘.

It is possible the Connellys left because they received eviction notices, although records indicate that Major Mahon didn’t sign any until April, to be delivered in early May, and it appears that the Connellys had already left by then. Maybe they had heard the rumors. Shortly after Mahon’s removal of the first 1000 families on the ‘coffin ships’ he had his land agent either pay off the families with a few pounds, or use the sheriff, to evict another two thousand more off the estate.

His actions were now going to have consequences. It was in the evening of November 2, 1847 that Major Mahon was murdered while driving home in a horse drawn carriage. According to witnesses at the event two men were involved. Before his murder he was making plans to evict another 6000 families off the estate. Some believe that it was his land agent John Ross Mahon who was actually the target as they had switched places on the carriage before the drive and the Major was holding the reigns. We will never know. The murder was never solved.

So to answer the question – No Dennis Connelly didn’t run away from Ireland because he was involved in the murder of Denis Mahon. He was already in America working to make a better life for his family.

So this Thanksgiving I will be sure to thank my Irish ancestors who survived a devastating famine, and a horrendous sea voyage to make a new life in America, making my Thanksgiving dinner possible.

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