When quite young, I read a book series: The Secret of the Ruby Ring, by Yvonne MacGrory. The premise: girls my age were magically transported to Ireland in the late 19th century.

In one book, spoiled Lucy ended up downstairs as a maid, and in the other, her grandmother Martha lived opulently upstairs. I was fascinated by the lives and the politics of it all.

While there are still many fine houses remaining – during the revolutionary period of the early 1920s, at least 275 of the “big houses” were burned down, blown up or otherwise destroyed. As I listened back to my interviews from Strokestown House and the National Famine Museum, goosebumps appeared on my skin.

In particular, the story of 12-year-old Daniel Tighe, whose family availed of the Assisted Emigration Scheme during the height of the Famine. Of their family of seven, only Daniel and his nine-year-old sister Catherine survived the journey aboard the Naomi, which sailed to Quebec.

My daughter is nine and my goosebumps were a result of transporting her to such a time and horror. And yet, as Caroilin Callery stressed, this is still happening to nine-year-olds every day. Her hope is that the museum can educate not just on the past but on current realities also.

The land question

Dr Tony McCarthy wrote about ‘The Irish Land Question’ for Irish Country Living, chronicling how when the Free State came into being in 1922, there were still 114,000 unpurchased tenants. Caroilin pointed out that the stories of the famine and the big houses can still be told by people who heard them first-hand. Similarly, the memory of being tenants is also within living memory of many Irish families.

The journey of the emigrants from Strokestown park to is marked by over 30 pairs of bronze shoe sculptures on the National Famine Way walking trail.

My Grandmother was born beside a “big house”, her parent’s caretakers to the Butlers of Ormond, and only a child when the “Big Shootout” happened there in 1921. Following this, her father and uncles were arrested for harbouring the Flying Column men who escaped the RIC and the Black and Tans that night.

The Irish Land Bill, designed to complete the transfer of land ownership from landlords to tenants started in 1870, was introduced into Dáil Eireann in May 1923 by the Minister for Agriculture, Patrick Hogan, only days after the end of the Civil War. Suffice to say, it is not surprising that families who have owned their land for just three to four generations would express anger at proposals to rewet it or CPO it. Political editor Pat O’Toole writes about the risk of these conversations provoking negativity and fear among farmers.

During my tour of Strokestown, historian John O’Driscoll told me a number of stories including: “When [museum renovation] work began the house appeared to have a modern fitted kitchen. But only because a young architect, Mary O’Carroll, had refused to rip out the Georgian kitchen and instead built a box to house the new kitchen requested by the family. Those wielding the sledgehammers found the cobweb-covered copper pots and pans that Mary had hidden wrapped in newspaper stuffed behind the fake walls.”

Cautionary tale

The second one was more a cautionary tale: “After service when the ladies were gone, a male servant brought a pot into the room for the men to use. If you left the room you could lose land, a title or a promotion in the army, so you stayed put no matter what. It is therefore important to remember the soup pot has two handles and you never drink from the pot with one handle.” Two lessons from these, it is important to preserve and respect history but also when it comes to land, to be properly informed and to stand your ground.

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