On Thursday 14th November President Mary McAleese officially accepted the deposit of the Strokestown Estate Archive for the new OPW-NUI Maynooth Archive and Research Centre. The deposit will be housed at Castletown House, Celbridge. It intends to open to the public by early summer 2009. The centre will allow for the study, conservation and storage of a range of historical evidence, with emphasis on the Irish landed elites and the decorative arts.
The Strokestown papers, previously held at the National Famine Museum, are comprised of 6,000 documents relating to the daily life of the Anglo-Irish Pakenham-Mahon family. Including family and estate papers, correspondence, and press cuttings, these documents are to provide a striking insight into the private and public lives of the Anglo-Irish elite.
Of particular interest will be the documents dating from the Great Irish Famine of 1845-50. These records, recovered from the estate office at Strokestown House, provide a harrowing account of Ireland’s worst social disaster on record and allow some understanding of the widespread suffering it brought upon the country’s poor.
Discovered amongst these moving documents was a request for food relief from President McAleese’s ancestor, Mary Lenehan of Elphin Street in Strokestown. Her name appears amongst a list of those who received grain on the estate in 1865. President McAleese was shown the record for the first time on Thursday. “She’s not sure of the exact connection but she thinks it could be her great-great-grandmother or even her great-great-great-grandmother,” a spokeswoman for the President said.
Speaking at the inauguration of the centre, President McAleese hailed the new culture of respect for source materials in Ireland, and warned against the practice of “ransacking the past for edited highlights with which to distort history”. She added that “the old days of them and us in which so much energy and hope was wasted along those formidable demarcation lines of Catholic and Protestant, of landlord and tenant, of Irish and Anglo, have manifestly begun to give way to a shared purpose and shared identity as shapers of a shared future.”
She recalled that “this was once a Big House, a place of and for privileged elites, its demeanour less than welcoming to the masses. Today it belongs to the people and is at their service. It will hold, protect and tell the stories of privileged and poor alike, for, without all sides to our many stories, we remain in danger not just of misrepresenting our past or having it misrepresented to us but we remain in danger of knowing our neighbours only as incomprehensible strangers.”
The opening marks the high point of an ongoing collaboration between the Office for Public Works and NUI Maynooth. The location of the archive at Castletown house, reopened by the OPW in 2007 as a cultural resource, was key to the project. The centre will occupy a suite of rooms in Castletown house.
John Hughes, President of NUIM, said “the collection that we welcome to our Centre today is an important part of our national inheritance. Our University now has a serious responsibility to maintain and catalogue these documents for future generations”.