Just 11km east of Tulsk is one of Ireland’s most striking planned towns, STROKESTOWN, whose story embodies Ireland’s troubled history in microcosm. The land on which the town lies and the surrounding area, known as Corca Achlann, belonged for more than a thousand years to the MacBranan clan, underlords of the powerful O’Connor kings who ruled Connacht, until dispossessed by Cromwell in the 1650s. Subsequently, part of their territory was granted by Charles II to Nicholas Mahon, whose kin later amassed more than thirty thousand acres for their huge estate, second only in size to Rockingham in Roscommon, becoming one of the great landed families of Ireland in the process. In the early nineteenth century, his descendant Lieutenant-General Thomas Mahon, Second Lord Hartland, requiring a grandiose symbol reflecting the extent of his property, determined to have constructed a central avenue wider than Vienna’s Ringstrasse. This tree-lined mall leads a couple of hundred metres both east and west from the town centre. At its western end sits an octagonal church, now housing the County Roscommon Heritage and Genealogy Company, which conducts research for anyone seeking to trace their Roscommon roots; the eastern end of the mall terminates in a three-arched gateway, marking the entrance to Mahon’s massive estate.
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Strokestown Park House
Strokestown Park House
The magnificent Georgian Strokestown Park House was the seat of the Mahon family from its completion in 1696 for almost three hundred years. This huge palladian mansion originally consisted of a two-storey central block and basement until the 1740s when Thomas Mahon, MP for Roscommon, hired the architect Richard Castle to construct a third storey and two extra wings. Mahon’s son, Maurice (who became the First Lord Hartland in 1800), made subsequent additions including the library and many decorative features, such as cornices and chimneypieces, while the Second Lord Hartland added the porch and its huge pilasters. The house remained in Mahon ownership until 1979 when it was sold, along with its contents, to a local garage owner who undertook restoration work and opened it to the public in 1987.
Few Irish “big houses” retain their original owners’ property (in this case ranging from furniture to children’s toys), which is a vital factor in making the guided tours so entertaining. The main hall features early eighteenth-century wood panelling while the spacious dining room, decorated in rich rose-pink damask wallpaper, is equipped with furniture from the early 1800s and a mammoth turf-bucket. The library was originally a ballroom – hence the bowed space at one end, which housed musicians – and has glorious Chippendale bookcases, while the smoking room was converted into a laboratory and photographic darkroom by Henry Pakenham-Mahon in the 1890s. The house’s north wing includes a superb kitchen, replete with spits and ovens, and, looking upwards, you’ll see a balustraded gallery, the only surviving example in Ireland of a kind favoured by Castle, from which the housekeeper could keep an eagle eye on business down below and, according to Strokestown legend, drop menus for the week’s meals down to the cook.
THE IRISH FAMINE MUSEUM
Among the property passed on by the Mahons were numerous documents and letters relating to the family’s role in relation to the Great Famine of 1845–51. The former stables of Strokestown Park House, marvellously vaulted buildings in their own right, house an often chilling and ever stimulating museum detailing the Famine’s effects upon the Mahons’ tenants and its wider impact across Ireland. The intricate but ever informative displays and films focus on the concatenation of factors in Ireland – the growth of the rural population, the conacre system of agricultural tenancy, the reliance on the potato crop and the spread of the potato blight – that combined with Britain’s economic policy of non-interference to have such a devastating effect on human life. Exhibits also highlight the role in local events of Major Denis Mahon, who had inherited the Strokestown estate after the death of the third and last Lord Hartland in 1845. The malevolent major not only evicted the majority of his tenants, but contracted dangerously unseaworthy vessels (the infamous coffin ships) to transport some of them in atrocious conditions to North America. Displays document contemporary newspaper reports condemning his actions and, in 1847, his assassination by vengeful ex-tenants.