Strokestown Park is a beautiful estate – but one that holds a horrifying history. The house’s current owner Jim Callery tells Emily Hourican why he had such a strong desire to turn it into a centre of remembrance
‘If we’d gone with the first plan, to keep five or six acres and get rid of the rest, it would have been an awful lot less trouble for an awful lot of people.” So says Jim Callery, with a laugh that is both pleased and rueful, about Strokestown Park, the stately home and 300-acre estate he bought almost by accident 35 years ago last Thursday.
Jim’s original plan was a very simple one – borrow money, buy the estate, keep a few acres, sell the rest, pay off the loan, and presumably watch as Strokestown then became a hotel, or any of the other likely fates of such houses in the 1970s and 1980s. For a successful businessman such as Jim Callery, the plan made perfect sense. Except that Jim, approaching 80 now, but with the vigour and bearing of someone much younger, discovered in Strokestown something that left him unable to walk away. Instead he started the National Famine Museum in the converted stableyard, began the ongoing restoration of the walled gardens, and preserved the house. Every bit of this has been a labour of love, undertaken at considerable personal cost, and passed down through the generations – Jim’s daughter Caroline is now on the board of directors.
When he says “if I had ever envisaged the struggle, I never would have [begun],” he is entirely believable, but it is impossible not to see how much affection and belief he has for what has been, and will yet be, done.
There is something too of the hand of fate in all of this. Strokestown Park – the estate which packed more poor and starving tenants onto coffin ships during the Great Famine than any other in the county – had fallen into the hands of probably the only man in the vicinity likely to keep it. On top of that, that it had produced the one document guaranteed to arrest his attention and inspire him to transform it into a national centre for remembrance of that tragic period – it seems something more than simple chance.
Strokestown Park was largely built by Richard Cassels, the architect responsible for Leinster House and Russborough House. He was commissioned by Thomas Mahon who inherited Strokestown in the early 18th Century. The estate later passed to a cousin, Major Denis Mahon, who inherited exactly as the first year of the potato blight struck in 1845. A sketch of Major Mahon from the time shows a handsome man with sensitive, even diffident eyes. And yet, he was responsible for huge numbers of his poorest tenants, often widows and orphans, being sent on coffin ships to Quebec, including 1490 in one year alone, of whom just 700 arrived alive at the far end.
As a result of what was either his cruelty or stupidity, Major Mahon was shot dead – the first landlord to be assassinated during that period. His daughter never again returned to the house, which lay largely empty for nearly 50 years, until her son, Captain Henry Sandford Pakenham, inherited and came back to live there in 1893. He spent money renovating and restoring Strokestown, and eventually passed it to his daughter Olive, who first married Edward Stafford King Harmon, of the Rockingham Estate in Boyle and, after his death, married Major Stuart Hales. Together the couple watched over the gradual, inexorable decline of Strokestown as time and nature took their toll on a house and grounds that only huge reserves of money and great vigilance could have kept pristine.
By the time Jim Callery enters the story, Strokestown was fading fast, beset by rot and damp, although Olive Hales Pakenham’s sense of what was due to herself and the estate was undiminished, meaning that relations were initially tense between the two.
“I came back from school to go farming because my father died when I was very young,” Jim says. “In the 1950s, the population was falling because people were emigrating in a flood, and those who were running the country were all fighting with each other. The country was on a downward spiral.” Jim started a filling station almost at the gates of Strokestown Park, “but every few shillings we made, we lost. We struggled a lot to try and get something to happen.” There were rows, too, with the people of the Big House about the mess and noise associated with Jim’s business. “The first time I was ever in this house, I was brought into the drawing room and I got a good lecture from Olive Hales Pakenham. She was a great tough character,” he recalls.
But business prospered, and Jim landed the Irish dealership for Scania trucks. More space was needed, and the only available land belonged to Olive. “We were hemmed in by Strokestown Park. I was afraid to come down and ask would they sell us a bit of land,” he laughs, “because I thought the relationship was so bad I wouldn’t get past the front door.” Via an intermediary, he did ask, and the request was turned down. Just a few years later, he got a message that: “‘Madame Hales Pakenham wants to see you.’ I thought, ‘God, what now,'” Jim laughs.
In fact, Olive told him that her son had decided to sell everything, and “I think you should try and buy it,” were her words. Jim says he nearly physically fell off his chair. But his is an astute commercial mind, and so, together with the directors of Westward, his company, he put together a bid.
That Jim had no interest in anything except the few acres that would allow Westward to expand is very clear when he explains that, far from having surveyors go over the property with him, he never even saw further inside the house than the drawing room where Olive received him.
“We never did a survey or looked at anything although the place was falling down,” he reveals. “So after a couple of years when the family went to London on a visit, I said, ‘could we take a look at the place?'” It is typical of Jim’s charm that he would ask politely to look over a property he owned. “I started to root. There were papers everywhere, I wasn’t here half an hour ’til I picked up a famine plea for the townland I was born in. Just like that.” The petition was from the starving tenants of Cloonahee, dated 22 August 1846, and begins pathetically: “Our families are really and truly suffering in our presence and we cannot much longer withstand the cries for food.”
That, really, was it for Jim. All his plans to sell on, stay aloof, were abandoned. “This paper turned everything around,” he says. “The plea was very moving for me, from the townland I still live in. That one document basically saved the place.” And so he went again to the directors of Westward, and put forward a quite different plan for when the Hales Pakenhams left, as he could not walk away.
“We thought that if this material is here, we’re not going to be responsible for a hammer job being done on the place. Financially it was a bloody disaster, but I hope it works out,” he adds wryly. Grants have been available over the years, but always one-offs for specific projects. The rest of the time, the cost of this privately-owned estate is privately-borne.
Did he ever think of living there? Becoming the new Lord of the Manor? He laughs loud at that. “You must be joking! Not a question of it. The idea of these houses was that you rang a bell, and a servant came. If you had to get from here to the kitchen, you’d be all day. They’re cold and uncomfortable, and they have had their day.”
Along with the house, Jim bought the entire contents, 350 years of family life, amassed and never discarded. “They were hoarders, they threw nothing away. Thank God!” says Strokestown Park curator John O’Driscoll. “No minimalism here.”
Much of the charm of Strokestown lies in its imperfections. So little is changed from the days when this was a family home housing successive generations. “Everything is original to the house, which is unique,” John explains. “So often a house like this is restored and stripped back to the period it was built. Here, no.”
The drawing room is complete with family portraits and photographs, a mishmash of furniture styles that grew over the years, driven by comfort rather than aesthetics. Upstairs in the master bedroom is the Major’s Chinese smoking robe from the 1800s. In the schoolroom is a board game called ‘The Game of the British Empire. Trading with the Colonies,’ and in the nursery a cot with a lumpy horsehair mattress. The playroom has an old pedalcar, an ancient doll’s house and a toy dinner set, including miniature wine glasses. Even the kitchen still has its original ranges for various sorts of cooking, an extractor fan dating from 1780, butter dishes and copper pots.
When the family decided to upgrade, they simply built a false wall and ceiling, a kind of box inside the old kitchen, containing the new one. The result is a charming jumble, and an authentic picture of Ascendancy life, but the job of sorting through rooms packed with the good, bad and indifferent effects of ages was monumental. “One room was full of empty bottles, up to the ceiling,” John recalls. “Thousands and thousands of them.”
Even now, as we walk through the house, Jim makes new finds – an old coach jack in the basement, for example. “You could keep rooting, that’s the disaster of this place. You could find new bits in it forever,” he says, with equal parts satisfaction and dismay. Steadily, he and Luke Dodd, the original curator, and now John O’Driscoll, have tackled vast mounds of stuff, clearing and sorting, “floor by floor, room by room, item by item, thing by thing.”
“We did it on a wing and a prayer,” recalls Luke Dodd. “The house was in an advanced state of disrepair, the roof needed to be redone, the outbuildings were derelict. There was an incredible innocence about the project. In retrospect it was ridiculous, but we just began working bit by bit. I found the spit that hangs in the kitchen fireplace in the furthest outbuilding. It was like a bit of archaeology trying to put it all together again.”
The results are beautiful, and when you factor in the lovely walled gardens and restored greenhouses, the shop and excellent café, serving home-cooked food (much of it from the gardens in season), this is a perfect day out for couples, families and history buffs. No wonder visitor numbers are climbing steadily.
But it is the National Famine Museum that really creates the emotional core of the experience. It was opened by President Mary Robinson in 1994, and successive Irish Presidents have been patrons. Built to house the remarkable collection of documents belonging to the house – over 50,000 of them, including rentals, accounts, correspondence, maps and plans, property deeds, rent books, labour returns, pamphlets, press cuttings and photographs, all generously donated by the Hales-Pakenham-Mahons, who neither censored nor withheld even the least flattering accounts.
It is, according to Dr Ciarán Reilly of Maynooth, one of the most important and extensive 19th Century estate collections in Ireland. It is also an astonishingly moving record of life before and during the Great Famine, as well as a reminder that famine is far from an ancient problem. As Jim says firmly, “this is a dead place if it doesn’t do something for present-day famine.”
Strokestown is a tribute to all the people who have had a hand in its creation and maintenance. From the architect who built it, to the family who lived in it, the curators who restored and showcased it, and, most recently, the man who has allowed it to flourish. For Jim Callery, this is an abiding passion. The magnificent quirk of fate that brought the right man to the right place and offered him the right historical incentive to become deeply immersed, has been to the benefit of us all.