On Saturday, a group of people set out from Strokestown, County Roscommon to walk the 100 miles to the Dublin docks, retracing the steps of the “missing 1,490” Famine victims who set out on foot from the County Roscommon estate in May 1847.
The walk commemorates the starving tenants who were given a choice by their landlord Major Mahon to go to the local workhouse, emigrate through “assisted passage,” or starve. After days of walking along the towpaths of the Royal Canal to Dublin, the men, women, and children were put on boats to Liverpool, and from there were bound for Quebec aboard four “coffin ships.”
Caroilin Callery, director of Strokestown Park House and Famine Museum, told the Irish Times that the Royal Canal was “the N4 of that time” and was the most likely route for Mahon’s tenants. Callery and her neighbors will walk for five days, stopping for the night in Abbyshrule, Mullingar, Enfield, and Maynooth. They hope hundreds will join them along the way.
Callery is also the director of the inaugural Irish Famine Summer School which takes place in Strokestown House from June 17 - 21. The school will be launched by Minister for the Arts Heather Humphreys when the walkers arrive in Dublin on Wednesday.
Callery said she will be thinking of the tenants as she retraces their steps.
“I will be thinking of the children walking barefoot, the hungry mothers carrying babies, the corpses they must have seen along the canal.”
Dr Ciarán Reilly, author of Strokestown and the Great Irish Famine, says that estate bailiff John Robinson was paid two shillings to escort the tenants' exodus to Liverpool and was “given strict instruction that none were ever to return to Roscommon.”
Instead of booking his tenants on passenger ships, Mahon placed them on cargo ships. An estimated 50 percent did not survive the journey.
“Another very sad and ironic fact is that these people initially travelled to Liverpool on boats loaded with grain from Ireland. They were lying under tarpaulin on deck, on top of this wheat,” said Callery.
Major Mahon was killed in November 1847. He was the first landlord murdered during the Famine.
“Word got back about the condition of the ships. There was a lot of anger,” said Callery.
Callery’s father Jim bought the 300-acre Strokestown estate in 1979. Years later, more than 55,000 documents, many relating to the Famine, were found in the house. The Irish National Famine Museum opened in 1994.