Bringing the Famine back home

by peter duffy / sun contributing writer and connie cissell / sun editor

Many Americans of Irish descent know, if hazily, that their ancestors came to the U.S. in the wake of the Great Irish Famine, a multi-year cataclysm that killed a million people and sent another million or so overseas. In fact, some 40 million Americans are believed to be descendents of those Famine sufferers who boarded disease-ridden ships bound for the New World.

In his new book, Peter Duffy investigates an infamous murder that occurred at the height of the misery, using the case to tell the larger story of the Famine itself. According to the Boston Globe, The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland (HarperCollins) is a rousing success, “a notable achievement in the use of local history to illuminate larger events.” The paper said that the book “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.” It should be noted that Woodham-Smith’s book has long been considered the seminal popular work of the Famine, a well-thumbed tome that sits on the bookshelf of nearly every home in Ireland. Blurbed by the likes of bestselling author Pete Hamill — “a splendid example of the new writing of Irish history” — Duffy’s book is a November alternate selection of the History Book Club and is also being offered by the Book of the Month Club and the Military Book Club.

A former staff writer and associate editor of The Catholic SUN, Duffy is also the author of The Bielski Brothers (HarperCollins, 2003), which was published in 12 languages and optioned for a major motion picture by Hollywood. The book documents how three brothers saved 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. He lives in New York City with his wife, Laura, and daughter, Eleanor. He grew up in Syracuse, graduating from Fayetteville-Manlius High School in 1987. His mother is the late Nancy Duffy of Channel 9 and St. Patrick’s Day Parade fame. His father, Peter L. Musacchio, is a martial arts pioneer of the region. He founded Central New York Karate Schools in 1963, the first karate school in upstate New York.
Q: If you were to write a short synopsis of The Killing of Major Denis Mahon, what would you write?
A: I tell the story of a notorious assassination that occurred during the worst days of the Great Irish Famine of the 19th century. An Anglo-Irish landlord from Strokestown, County Roscommon — a man who had evicted 2,000 starving paupers and sent another 1,000 aboard ships bound for America — was shot as he drove his carriage through his property. The story was an immediate sensation. It inspired endless debates in both houses of the British parliament and reams of newspaper commentary. Queen Victoria wrote about it in her journal. The course of the controversy was altered when the local parish priest — Father Michael McDermott — was accused of inciting the crime from the pulpit by fiercely denouncing the Protestant landlord. Suddenly, the sectarian aspects of the crime came into greater relief. There was more parliamentary jousting and newspaper warfare. Over several meetings, a British envoy in Vatican City told a shocked Pope Pius IX about the wayward Irish cleric who urged murder. The priest’s defenders in Ireland and England — including Father McDermott’s bishop and Archbishop John MacHale, perhaps the most forbidding figure in the Irish Catholic hierarchy — responded by wondering how a man of God could fail to denounce the landlord’s cruelty. In the end, the murder resulted in legislation that sought to tame the restive Irish peasant, a rebuke from the pope that attempted to quell pulpit denunciations, and three trials that ended in the hanging of the two principal conspirators.

But a review of the folklore of the incident shows that the killing of Major Denis Mahon has anything but the settled storyline that this summary might indicate. For instance, in local memory the landlord appears not to have been remembered for his cruelty. A local storyteller in the 1930s noted that he “did his best to alleviate the sufferings of his tenants for whom he was truly sorry.” It was the land agent, the man who recommended the evictions, who was the true target of the assassins, goes this version of the story. This is just one of the many curiosities in this story. Another: Was Father McDermott a Christlike figure denouncing injustice who was unfairly tarred by sectarian bigots? Or was he a “vindictive, ill-considered blackguard,” as one British official called him, who mismanaged the relief fund for the poor, possibly even embezzling from it? There is more: Were the murderers starving tenants angered to action by the landlord’s policies or part of an organized band of agrarian bandits from better-off circumstances who needed no particular reason to lash out at the landed class? And of course, was the man hanged for firing the fatal shot the actual assassin? I probably would not have bothered writing the book if that question wasn’t included.

But this perplexing case is perhaps most valuable because it provides a revealing view of the Famine itself — the successive failures of the staple food crop, the government relief efforts (which were intented to be administered in significant measure by local figures of authority like Major Mahon and Father McDermott), the harsh clearances of those unable to pay rent, and the harrowing journeys aboard emigrant ships. The Irish government confirmed the significance of the story when the national Famine Museum was opened on Major Mahon’s property in 1994.
Q: With a name like Peter Duffy, I’m guessing a book that explores the implications of the Irish Potato Famine was pretty close to your heart. Why did you pick this topic for your second book?

A: During the research for my first book, I was struck by something that happened several times while interviewing a survivor of the Holocaust. As the two of us discussed the horrors of Nazi rule, a relation of the interviewee would enter the room, typically to deliver refreshments. Invariably, the survivor would cease talking, unwilling to continue the chilling tale in the presence of a son or daughter or spouse who may be wounded by secret knowledge from the past.

This got me to thinking about the secret knowledge that was carried by my great, great-grandfathers, two of whom fled Ireland during the Famine. What did they witness? With this spur, I glanced through a few histories to learn what happened in Roscommon, the mid-island county where Michael Duffy and John Keogh hailed from. Before long, I stumbled upon the notorious story of Major Denis Mahon. The impulse for writing this book was to learn more about the Famine by investigating the great, unsatisfactorily solved crime of Irish history.

Q: Can you tell us about what you undercovered as far as the Catholic Church in Ireland during that time period? How connected was the local church with the misery that was endured by so many at that time?

A: The church was deeply involved in many aspects of the Famine story. It is not true, as the Bull McCabe character says in Jim Sheridan’s film version of the John Keane play The Field, that no priest died during the Famine. In 1847, 40 priests died of fever. The local Roscommon newspaper noted that clergymen were “day and night zealously employed ministering to the people.” That is not to say that all priests were always and everywhere Christlike. In fact, I spent considerable time investigating whether Father McDermott’s behavior in Strokestown was truly admirable during the Famine. I think it can be safely said that serious questions should be raised about many of his actions. But I’ll allow readers to draw their own conclusions based on the facts that I present.

Q: How long did it take you to complete the research for this book? How much time did you spend in Ireland and how much access did you have to old records?

A: It took roughly two and a half years to complete this work. I spent perhaps six weeks in Ireland, all told. I had extraordinary access to records — letters, government documents, court transcripts, police files. In fact, I had better documentation for this book — which took place 160 years ago — than I did for the first book — which happened 60 years ago. And for the first book, I was able to interview survivors.

Q: Compare what it was like to write a story about the 100th anniversary of a parish in the Syracuse Diocese back when you were editor of The Catholic SUN to what it is like to have a book published. What is the process like for you?

A:The process is exactly the same, although the scale is entirely different. Both of my books have been stories about small communities and the characters within them. A parish history is a story about a small community and the characters within it. My approach hasn’t changed a bit.

Q: How relevant do you feel it is to try to bring parts of history into present day? What do you do to try to make something that happened 150 years ago come alive to readers today?

A: I see myself as a storyteller. The fact that these stories occurred in the past is incidental. I have no interest in history for history’s sake. I think storytelling is essential to human nature. It’s my job merely to communicate the story in a manner that makes it “relevant” — appealing, significant — to the average reader. How do I do that? Through character, plot, detail and analysis.

Q: What role does your past experience in this diocese play as you continue to write and grow as an author, a father and a husband?

A: Well, I’m from here. I learned how to be writer here. I come back as often as I can. It’s my hometown. Syracuse winters will always be in my bones. I suffer when the Orangemen lose.

Q: There was talk of movie development with your first book, The Bielski Brothers. Is that progressing?

A:There are actually two Bielski projects in Hollywood — one based on my book, another based on another historical account. As it happens, the rival project has finished shooting in Lithuania. It stars Daniel Craig, the current James Bond. So it looks like the rival project might actually be released. But you never know how these things turn out. I had very little to do with the whole movie process. I read a few drafts of the screenplay. That’s it.

Q: Do you feel there is a basis for a movie with The Killing of Major Denis Mahon?

A: So far, I’ve heard nothing.

Q: How about all the times you’ve read a book and then went to view the movie and may have said to yourself, “Ohhh, the book was much better than the movie!” Does that run through your thoughts as you think about your books being made into movies?

A: Sure. Film is an entirely different means of communication. But I think it would be quite a luxury to say of a movie made of one of my books, “The book was better.” That’s the kind of quip I dream about uttering.

Q: Many of our readers are familiar with your mom, Nancy Duffy, and her commitment to her faith and her community. She passed away last December. Did you discuss your books with her? What did she have to say about The Killing of Major Denis Mahon?

A: I spoke with her about it endlessly. She was nothing but supportive. I’m not sure that The Killing of Major Denis Mahon is the book she would’ve written if presented with the same facts but she was nonetheless deeply interested in my interpretations. She read the first hundred or so pages of the manuscript. The book is dedicated to her memory. I hope it is worthy of it.

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