Editor’s Choice: Knocknagow - Case history of an Irish Best-seller by Seán Ó Faolain

From the archive: in a story first published in 1941 Seán Ó Faolain takes a close look at why Knocknagow (1879), the novel by Charles Kickham, became such a hit with Irish readers

Sean O'Faolain. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

Sean O'Faolain. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

Mon, Oct 7, 2013, 11:21

First published: Saturday, May 10th, 1941

Charles Kickham (May 9th, 1828-August 22nd, 1882) was born in the village of Mullinahone, County Tipperary. The village is about half-way between Kilkenny and Clonmel, if you take the road through Fethard. Slievenamon is due south of it and the Slieveardagh Hills – now coming into prominence because of their coal desposits – are to the north. (They gave its name to the village of New Birmingham at their feet.)

In the year 1879, when he was fifty-one, Kickham published a novel, “Knocknagow, or the Homes of Tipperary.” It is the best-seller that any Irish novelist ever produced. (It is now in its twenty-seventh edition incorrectly marked Twenty-sixth Edition). No record exists of the size of the early editions, and most of them are undated – a bad habit with Irish publishers , which for some unknown reason they follow to this day – but we can make an adequate guess at their size, and, perhaps, be satisfied as to the minimum number of copies printed.

1,000 Copies a Year
Browne and Nolan’s informed me that they printed for the publisher (James Duffy) an edition of 5,000 copies in 1931, and another of 5,000 in 1935. The publisher tells me that the present edition is also one of 5,000 copies. That makes an average sale of 1,000 copies a year at present, and the publishers assure me that the sales are, by comparison with earlier times, on a downward graph – though obviously still very satisfactory, considering how old the book is.

To go back to the earlier time, there were seven editions between 1879 and 1887, or an edition every year almost. As I say, we do not know the size of these editions. We have to balance the fact that the modern editions run to 5,000 against the present annual sale of 1,000; bear in mind that we are told that sales are not what they were, and that the great hey-day of the novel is over, and simply hazard that all editions average out at around 3,000 copies. That would mean a sale – surely we may say a minimum sale – of over 70,000: probably far more. It is a pity we cannot be more precise.

But we must go-further. “Knocknagow” has been translated into several languages. It has been sold and published in the colonies. I doubt if there can be a living Irishman who has not at least heard of it. Sales, moreover, underestimate readers.

From what we know of the indestructibility of matter in the countryside – where a hat will last anything up to twelve years and a stick may last a generation – every cherished copy of “Knocknagow” has probably passed from grandfather to grandson.

I bought the seventh edition of the novel on a bookstall a while ago, dated 1887, and at the end of certain chapters one reader had marked over the years the date at which he had arrived at that point in his reading – much as a man might notch his doorpost for the growth of his children, or, like Crusoe, commemorate the passing of his life. In short, the actual number of readers of “Knocknagow” is incalculable.

Why, one asks, has this one book by this novelist who wrote two other novels and some well-known verse, such as “She Lived Beside the Anner,” had this unique success?

To say that “Knocknagow” succeeded on its merits is not enough. Better books have not sold as well. Kickham’s own “Sally Cavanagh” is not much inferior, if inferior at all, and it has had no such reclame. There are other novelists, like Griffin and Sheehan, who wrote of the life of the people with as much sympathy and even more incisiveness, but it will be a long day before their most popular books-such as “Glenanaar,” or “The Graves of Kilmorna” approach Kickham’s total.

* * *

Commercial Success
One may agree that a book has a commercial success like this for two main reasons – because people buy it to possess it, and because people buy it to read it. There are many books which people buy but do not read, such as sets of Dickens “for the children.” and of all the people who purchased “Finnegans Wake,” how many have read it?

There can be no such doubt about “Knocknagow.” It is remembered by its characters and its incidents – Mat Donovan (the Thrasher), Grace Kiely, Norah Lahy, whom Kickham, against the appeals of her admirers “had to let die” – a figure as appealing to readers of Kickham as Little Nell to readers of Dickens; or Phil Lahy, who was so devoted to the prophecies of Colmcille; Billy Heffernan, the flute-player; the droll figure of Wattletoes, Father Matt, the priest with the proud head.

“Everybody” knows the famous contest between Matt and the Captain, where Matt hesitates to defeat the Captain at throwing the hammer – for he is “a decent man,” and if Matt could without dishonour let him have the victory he would like to do it; and we remember with emotion how Matt’s eyes fall on the white-washed cabins of the village across the hill, and a surge of deeper joyalty breaks through him and whispering “For the honour of the old home” he breaks all records amid the frenzied shouts of the crowds.

* * *

Jokes and Phrases
The very phrases of the book have gone into popular speech, and Kickham either invented these or publicised them: such as “Straight as a split on a peeler’s poll”; “That fellow is blue for want of a batin”: “The world is only a blue-rag, knock a squeeze out of it if you can.”

They are on every page. The jokes become traditional. “Matrimony is a place or state of punishment where some souls suffer for a time before they go to Heaven.” The angry man who has just made his Confession and is in the state of grace and cannot vent his anger. “I’m in the state of grace now, but, please God, I won’t always be in the state of grace! And if I meet you then, by so-and- so and this-and-that ….”

The book has been so carefully perused that it has received the finest tribute to its persuasiveness that any fiction can get – people have recorded the originals of its characters, behind whom have been seen the Creans of Knockelly, the Goings of Mount Harden, the Blundens of Compsey, and, for the original Matt the Thrasher, a well-known athlete in Ballycullen named Cuddehy.

There is no snobbery or pretension behind those large sales of “Knocknagow.” The people loved that book.

A Classic
It is easy enough to see why. The various opinions which editors and biographers have expressed (or, rather, the manner of their expression) indicate the nature of its appeal. To the author of “Rambles in Erin” (another highly popular book up to twenty years ago ) “the book will always be a classic . . . it is such a faithful and beautiful story of Irish character. No novel of Irish life shows such insight into the Irish heart as “Knocknagow.”

JJ Healy, one of Kickham’s biographers, writing in 1915, felt that “the world is, indeed, brighter and better for having possessed him, and mankind will be the fairer for the treasury of pure, generous and noble thought which has been left to us in his works.” RJ Kelly, lecturing on Kickham in Dublin in1914, says: “The peasant is reproduced as he knew him-simple-minded, honest-souled, high-spirited, animated and inspired by two noble passions – love of his religion and his country; and running through every chapter of his works are a racy, genial humour and a poetic fancy that are inimitable. He wrote from a thorough knowledge of the Irish people and from a thorough sympathy with them.”

The introduction to the edition before me says: “No writer possessed a mind quicker to see or wider to hold the best feelings of our people.” The Rev Stephen J. Brown, S.J. in “The Reader’s Guide to Irish Fiction,” says in 1910: “It is full of exquisite little humorous and pathetic traits. The description of the details of peasant life is quite photographic in its fidelity, yet not wearisome. There is the closest observation of human nature and of individual peculiarities. It is realism of the best kind.” (Incidentally I do not know on what grounds Father Brown gives the date of the first edition as “around 1860,”)

These opinions of Kickham’s whole hearted admirers all agree in a general delight in the novel’s brightness, geniality, idealism, combined with verisimilitude. It clearly evoked strong emotions in its readers. It stirred human and tender feelings. It presented readers with idealised characters whom they were glad to cherish in the memory as old friends. The book belongs to those books, rare enough in literature, which at once made the world seem a better, brighter and nobler place, and at the same time manage to persuade its readers that all these likeable characters really and truly lived just as they were depicted

* * *

The Famine
But the public who packed “Knocknagow” into their bundles as they took boat for America, or lovingly patted it into its place in the clevvy by the heartside, loved the book for other reasons. And here a few dates will suffice to explain. Lever’s “Charles O’Malley” came out in 1841, and “Harry Lorrequer” in 1839 and Lover’s “Handy Andy” came out in 1842. They were magnificent but they were considered “burlesque,” “caricature,” “grotesque” (words which I take, for the same of contrast, from Father Brown’s Guidebook).

The Famine had come. The people were downhearted and wanted a lift, encouragement, something to give them spirit and pride. They got it in Kickham. Observe a few other dates, and remember that “Knocknagow” (1879) has for its background a good deal of the land problem. The Home Rule League was founded in 1870; Parnell entered Parliament, in 1875; Davitt came out of jail in 1878, and the Land League was founded in 1879.

From that onward the people were up and fighting. This spirited and idealised novel, “Knocknagow,” written by a fenian who had been in jail, with the whole land question running through it, came in the precise moment that demanded such a book, and it was exactly of the right spirit for a people emerging from bad times. “Thank God, there are happy homes in Tipperary still,” are the last spoken words of the novel, and they measure its qualified optimism.

Real People
There is one other purely practical thing that helped it to success. Portion of it was published in serial form in the Kilkenny Celt; it ran as a serial in the Shamrock, and began to appear simultaneously in the New York Emerald. That, in a country which could not afford books, publicised it as nothing else could do.

Kickham wrote about his own time and problems. He did what modern Irish novelists and playwrights are doing, and what the most popular dramatists of the Abbey Theatre did and do (“The Eloquent Dempsey,” “The Plough and the Stars,” “The Rugged Path”). He wrote about real people. He wrote in the benevolent temper which was natural to him. The result is that his novel, though it is not a great novel, is a faithful novel, and an affectible novel. It will always remain a minor classic even after the “habit” of it has died out, as it is slowly dying out, according as the public becomes more and more in tune with the incisive, critical, and tightly woven realism of to-day. It has feeling and it has humanity, and these always last.