In the midst of mass starvation in the worst year in Irish history, the killing of a landlord shook a county, a country and the center of an imperial power.
Mahon, the son of a Church of Ireland minister, grew up in relatively modest circumstances in County Galway. The estate founded by his Cromwellian ancestor Thomas Mahon only passed into his control after two of his County Roscommon cousins died without leaving an heir and another, similarly childless, was declared insane by the courts.
Unlike some of his relatives, Mahon had an undistinguished army career, catching the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars. Nothing marked him out from the crowd, other than his having thousands of tenants. Indeed, it could be said the most interesting or colorful thing in his past was his father-in-law, a progressive English bishop who railed against the injustice to which Irish Catholics were subject. Yet author Peter Duffy felt that by investigating the non-descript Mahon’s last years and the mystery of his death he could tell the story of the Famine itself.
This, his second book, has its roots in his first, “The Belski Brothers,” the story of three young men whose parents and siblings died in the Holocaust. Duffy found that when he interviewed survivors, some would stop talking if a relative came into the room. It was clear that his subjects were telling a story that they’d kept to themselves.
He wondered about possible secrets in his own family background. One of his great-grandfathers came from a village to the north of Strokestown at the time of the Famine, another from a townland to its south. Very little had been passed down through the generations, but he knew that the one named Duffy was illiterate, and the other named Kehoe was related to a member of Parliament.
His ancestors had no known link to the Mahon story but he felt that by investigating it he could at least understand their times and the circumstances that brought them to America
Duffy, who’s 38, first came across the murder case itself when reading Cecil Woodham-Smith’s “The Great Hunger” and the simple tale pulled him in. Now, whenever someone asks him to recommend a book on the Famine, he mentions Woodham-Smith’s work and “Emigrants and Exiles” by Kerby Miller. “It has a real feel for the period,” he said of the latter book. “I learnt a lot from that book.”
Duffy immersed himself, too, in the flood of academic literature that’s appeared on the Famine over the past 15 years or so. Top of his list are works by Cormac O Gr_da, James Donnelly and Christine Kennelly, but he singled out “Famine, Land and Politics” by Peter Gray as “a classic.”
Duffy, a native Syracuse, N.Y., traveled to Strokestown and Dublin to read the primary documents relating to the Mahon case.
“I know that my view was stereotypical and clich