The Killing of Major Denis Mahon

Summary

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.


Reviews

“In a country where much of the past is shrouded in a fog of myth, legend, and mournful ballads, this is a splendid example of the new writing of Irish history. Peter Duffy writes here with admirable exactitude, free of academic jargon, telling all the known facts about a 19th century killing that stands for something much larger. The wider Irish context of the tale is laid out with care and precision, and Duffy casts skeptical eyes upon all lazy theories and easy explanations. Like all good historians, he identifies the moral issues, but does not moralize. In the end, some mysteries remain, as they do in all explorations of the human past.  But in the end, we know far more than we ever knew before.”

Pete Hamill, author of The Drinking Life


“Among the million deaths during Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s, there were some that did not fit the pattern of starving families dying as they huddled in derelict hovels, of emaciated men collapsed in roadside ditches, as well as of priests, doctors, and others who had cared for the stricken.

“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


“Peter Duffy´s intricate and absorbing book “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon” is the story of an emigration scheme that went tragically wrong. Its villain, Major Mahon, had inherited a large estate around Strokestown, next to Ballykilcline, just before the famine. The estate was heavily indebted, having been neglected for years. In the spring of 1847, at the height of the potato blight, Mahon tried to rid his property of nearly 1,000 destitute tenants. Keen to pare costs, he chose an unreliable shipping agent and the cheapest available destination, Quebec. One-third of those shipped out perished.

“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


“[Duffy´s] exploration into this devastating period in Irish history is a scrupulously researched and well-presented record. Capably transforms one of the bleakest episodes in modern history into an instructive account of events that have lasting repercussions to this day.”

Kirkus Reviews


“Of the 70 or 80 books I read in 2008, more than a few stand out. I loved … Peter Duffy’s histories of the Bielski brothers’ heroism, and of the Irish famine.”

Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune


“During the years of the Great Irish Famine, it is estimated that one million people perished. A staggering number that makes the impression that the story of one death could never succeed in revealing such a huge crisis, which is what I believed before opening Peter Duffy´s “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon.” The murder of an obscure, rural aristocrat sounds like the stuff of historical fiction and not actual events. Yet Duffy has succeeded in telling the story of a man whose demise speaks to the failings of British policy and private charity, the involvement of the church, the influence of economic policy, issues of immigration, foreign reaction, religious strife, local law, underground societies, and the misery of the masses, making a surprisingly coherent story that is equally interested in narrative and history. …

“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


“Mahon´s death has been a source of controversy ever since. Was it justified? Was Mahon himself committing slow mass murder of his tenants? Duffy (The Bielski Brothers) mounts an investigation, but more importantly, marshals his storytelling skills to render vividly the harsh realities and the alternately heartbreaking and appalling politics of the Great Famine. To Duffy´s credit, his treatment is evenhanded. Yet he does not lose sight of the larger discussion that the blight engendered in Parliament, where powerful factions seized upon the crisis as an opportunity to persuade the Irish to change their ways–particularly, their loyalty to the Catholic Church.”

Publishers Weekly