Lessons from Kickham
An Irishman’s Diary: From the little village to the globalised world
‘This year marks the 140th anniversary of the publication of Knocknagow. It became the most popular Irish novel up to the mid-20th century, running to 28 editions between 1873 and 1944.’
Charles Kickham rose like Slievenamon above the men of his time. At this summer’s school in Mullinahone, Co Tipperary, I suggested that Kickham’s enduring legacy is the example of his courage. He matched the intellectual courage of a lifetime with physical courage. Due to an accident in his youth, he had impaired eyesight and was almost totally deaf – yet he achieved great things. With an iron will, he overcame disability to develop his talents in the service of the wider community. More than most, he realised that change involves work and suffering.
Through his writings he toiled to vindicate the character of his people against the calumnies of a hostile media. The historian Lecky wrote in 1861 of the “ceaseless ridicule, the unwavering contempt, the studied depreciation of the Irish character and intellect habitual in the English newspapers”.
This year marks the 140th anniversary of the publication of Knocknagow. It became the most popular Irish novel up to the mid-20th century, running to 28 editions between 1873 and 1944. In answer to the charge that Kickham idealised his characters, John O’Leary wrote: “He knew the Irish people thoroughly . . . and from thoroughness of knowledge came thoroughness of sympathy . . . and, anyway, what merits or demerits they might have, they were his people.” That “anyway” was important to Kickham.
John Devoy described him as “the finest intellect in the Fenian movement, either in Ireland or America”. Judge William Keogh sentenced him to 14 years’ penal servitude, partly in revenge for the articles he had written in the Irish People about the “hanging judge”, who sentenced the McCormack brothers to be executed unjustly for the murder of land steward.
In his youth Kickham was inspired by the Nation and its chief writer, Thomas Davis. Charles Gavan Duffy, another of the Nation triumvirate, wrote to Judge Thomas O’Hagan in 1866: “. . . I have been dreaming constantly of the unfortunate Fenian prisoners. Fancy the condition of men of some culture like O’Leary and Kickham utterly without books, and without pen and ink.” Duffy, home on holiday from Australia, urged O’Hagan to ask Gladstone to allow them books and pen and ink, and a few yards of matting for their cells. “They would be no less secure, but they would be rescued from torture.”
Kickham was released by the first Gladstone administration from Woking prison in March 1869 broken in health. He returned to an Ireland where “the roofless walls of once happy homes meet one at every turn, and the emigrant ship is still bearing away its freight of sorrow and vengeance”. He was persuaded to write Knocknagow, or the Homes of Tipperary by his kinsman John O’Mahony, founder of the Fenian Brotherhood.