At the height of the Irish Famine, now considered the greatest social disaster to strike nineteenth-century Europe, Anglo-Irish landlord Major Denis Mahon was assassinated as he drove his carriage through his property in County Roscommon. Mahon had already removed 3,000 of his 12,000 starving tenants by offering some passage to America aboard disease-ridden “coffin ships,” giving others a pound or two to leave peaceably, and sending the sheriff to evict the rest. His murder sparked a sensation and drove many of the world’s most powerful leaders, from the queen of England to the pope, to debate its meaning. Now, for the first time, award-winning journalist Peter Duffy tells the story of this assassination and its connection to the cataclysm that would forever change Ireland and America.
“To compound the tragedy, Mahon proceeded to evict most of those who remained on the estate. By August, when he sent to Dublin for his “small mahogany case … containing a six-barrel pistol,” he knew he was a marked man. A few months later, he was shot dead after nightfall as his carriage traveled a country road four miles from his home. His murder was greeted with widespread jubilation; within hours, celebratory bonfires were lighted on neighboring hills.Cormac Ó Gráda, The New York Times Book Review
In focusing on both the successes and failing of Major Denis Mahon´s role in Famine relief, Duffy´s book allows the complexity of this larger history to reveal itself. The bad guy is not the “government” or the collective aristocracy. Both the protagonist and antagonist are one man whose actions – not purely good or purely evil – are traced through letters, newspaper articles, court records, government documents, and police reports. And the events surrounding Mahon´s murder draw in even more perspectives, from a town priest who becomes his rival, to the emergent criminal underworld, Mahon´s underhanded land manager, and “witnesses” lending their court testimony for a variety of dubious reasons. As a journalist, Duffy treats this history in an even-handed and meticulous way, but the delicacy and passion with which he shares his research makes ‘The Killing of Major Denis Mahon’ as engaging as the unraveling of a murder mystery should be.The Irish Echo
Those exceptions were landlords and other men of property who were gunned down by rural agitators and angry tenants.
And among them was the County Roscommon landlord, whose murder is the subject of Peter Duffy’s probing account, “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon.”
It is a significant contribution to the literature of the Great Famine, standing alongside Cecil Woodham-Smith’s 1962 account, “The Great Hunger,” still in print. And Duffy’s exploration of the famine years in one community is also a notable achievement in the use of local history to illuminate larger events. …
A final word about how Duffy, a New Yorker, came to write the book. Both of his great-great-grandfathers had fled Ireland during the famine, and curious as to what they had witnessed, he happened on the story of Major Mahon. His goal then was to explore ‘how relief schemes formulated in the comfort of London . . . actually worked in the stricken communities of Ireland.’ In this, Duffy has succeeded.Boston Globe