Gilbert (left)

TIME WINDOWS: Edward Mahon: A stimulating childhood

Castlegar founder Edward Mahon was born in 1862 into an influential Anglo-Irish family.

Castlegar founder Edward Mahon was born on June 1, 1862 into an influential Anglo-Irish family, which was atypical as it was established in England. The reason was his father’s dedication to his calling: ministering to his Protestant flock in Rawmarsh, Yorkshire. Even when he ascended to the title of Fifth Baronet in 1852, William Vesey Ross Mahon did not sever his English connections and relocate to the ancestral family estate, Castlegar, in County Galway. Castlegar Estate was subsequently managed by a resident land agent, with the family visiting occasionally to imprint the children on their roots and to carry out minor improvements.

Of his nine offspring, two are most directly connected to our story. John Fitzgerald was four years older than Edward, and Gilbert was three years younger. John would inherit a fortune from a bachelor uncle and become a successful developer and merchant banker, while Gilbert would be struggling for success all his life, tormented by doubts and shadows.

Edward’s schooling commenced with tutoring by the curate at Rawmarsh, followed by Malvern College and then Oxford. Initially he thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the ministry. However, that proved impossible, as he had a scientific mind and was growing up in an age of major revelations. The magnitude of the universe was just beginning to be understood, and Darwin had challenged the theological view of man as a unique being created in God’s image.

His sensitivity to these sentiments was no doubt fanned by his gifted relatives. Foremost was his mother, Jane King. She imbued in her children a love of reading, music and art. Her sister, Mary, fired up their scientific curiosity. An ardent naturalist and astronomer, she combined her observations and discoveries with a talent for writing, and published several popular books. She was killed tragically in 1869 at Birr Castle during trials of an experimental self-propelled vehicle.

That setting brings us to Edward’s other famous relation. Alice Lloyd, the sister of his maternal grandmother, had married Laurence Parsons, 2nd Earl of Rosse. Their son, William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, developed a passion for scientific discovery. He constructed what was at the time the largest (60 inch) reflector telescope in the world on his Birr Estate. With it, he commenced a comprehensive study of nebulae, and in due time realized that many were distant aggregations of stars that we now call galaxies. It was a major leap in understanding of the universe, as it got us beyond the confines of our own Milky Way.

Below: After an assassination attempt, John Ross Mahon (sitting sideways on carriage) was given police protection, which is seen following behind. His protégé, John Fitzgerald, is on the opposite side. The photograph was taken at Weston, Castlegar Estate, ca. 1883. (Original photograph from Mahon Family Records)

That connection in particular resonated strongly with Edward. In due time he would become an amateur astronomer, who would support various schemes to develop world-class observatories in the North Vancouver area.

His studies finally resolved themselves into a legal career. In 1888 he was admitted to the bar and set up practice in Dublin. His heart, however, was not in that profession either. There is a wistful, dreamy look on his face in an 1889 photo of his sister Alice’s wedding, which suggests a longing for a change. It was not long in coming.

John Fitzgerald had for some time been a protégé of his uncle, John Ross Mahon, who in 1836 had combined resources with Robert Randall Guinness to form a land management agency, which gradually evolved into a successful banking enterprise. The land agency advocated a scientific approach to management of the many large Anglo-Irish estates, owned largely by Protestants and sublet to impoverished Catholic farmers, whose survival was greatly dependent on the potato. The introduction of potato blight from America led to painful readjustments, as well as a risky life for land agents. John Ross survived assassination attempts, and when he died in 1887, he passed on his entire fortune, including his interest in the bank, to John.

In 1889 John set out on a world cruise, looking for fertile ground for investment. He settled on the Vancouver area as the most promising, and started buying up land on both sides of Burrard Inlet. The following year, he convinced Edward to emigrate to British Columbia, to take over as his representative and seek out other investment opportunities.

Edward realized he had found his calling. As his only son Bryan would recount after his death, he remembered his father telling him with a twinkle in his eye, that “you can make money out of business and real estate without telling lies”.

It was the challenge to diversify his business interests that led Edward to the Kootenays.

Walter Volovsek’s website can be found at trailsintime.org

Previous installments in this series

Ole Skattebo: Fishing legend

Ingenuity: Milking the river

Intrigues: Castlegar’s lacklustre childhood

Perceptions: Adrift on the River of Life

Local history interwoven with rivers

Drawn into the currents of time