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
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.
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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?