Strokestown Park House was the seat of the Pakenham-Mahon family from 1600 to 1979. King Charles II granted the vast estate, which stretches for miles in every direction, to Nicholas Mahon after the Restoration in appreciation of his support of the House of Stewart during the bloody English Civil War. It was quite a reward. The original house, completed in 1697, was considered to be too small and unimposing by Nicholas’s grandson, Thomas. So he hired Richard Cassels (also known as Richard Castle) to build him something bigger and more impressive. The result is this 45-room Palladian mansion.
The north wing houses Ireland’s last existing galleried kitchen (where the lady of the house could observe the culinary activity without being part of it). The south wing is an elaborate vaulted stable so magnificent that it has been described as an “equine cathedral.”
These days Strokestown is also the permanent home of the Irish National Famine Museum, one of the country’s very best museums devoted to that deadly period in Irish history. It sets out the terrible mixture of natural disaster and shocking cruelty of the British establishment that led to the deaths of around a million people and the emigration of a million more. Exhibits include letters penned by some of the tenants of Strokestown during the Famine years.
The reasoning behind this somber but incongruous pairing of historic attractions becomes clearer when you understand a little more of the history behind the grand Strokestown estate—particularly the behavior of one man, Major Denis Mahon, who was the landlord at Strokestown during the 1840s. When the potato blight struck, and famine started to spread, Mahon and his land agents could have done many things to help the hundreds of starving peasants who lived and worked on the property, but instead they evicted them as soon as it became clear they would not be able to pay their rent. He even went so far as to charter ships to send them away from Ireland. In 1847 Major Mahon was shot to death near Strokestown, and two men were hastily (and dubiously) convicted of the crime. But it seems clear that many hungry people had motives.